The Ponson Case by Freeman Wills Crofts (1921)

When the battered body of Sir William Ponson is found in the Cranshaw River it is assumed to be an accident. Apparently trying to cross in a small boat, he lost control of his oars and drifted too close to the Cranshaw Falls, was carried over and dashed on the rocks below. But later evidence points to murder. And there are those who would benefit from Sir William’s death. His son Austin, who will receive the bulk of the estate, never got on well with his father, and his nephew Cosgrove is definitely in need of funds. Inspector Tanner of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. But while suspicion falls on both men, as they each have seemingly unbreakable alibis, their involvement appears impossible. Only a meticulous investigation by Tanner will get to the truth.

If you do not derive joy from reading a book which follows an investigation that is exclusively about the gathering and sifting of evidence…in exhaustive detail…you can stop reading right now. Walk away, for that is what The Ponson Case is all about. But if like me, you are endlessly entertained by the process of detection, then read on. 

So, now that that is out of the way…

As is the case in many of Crofts stories, this one hinges on the strength of seemingly unshakable alibis. Knowing that someone is lying, Tanner doggedly follows the clues, uncovering evidence little by little, weighing every clue and statement, and then starting from scratch until he finds the answer. He of course uncovers several sets of footprints and goes over many train (and boat) schedules. And there is the addition of a certain type of shoe that could only have been bought in a West End branch of a store. 

To test the soundness of his new supposition, he continued next morning the inquiry he had been making on the previous afternoon—interrogating the shoe shop salesman for information as to Austin’s purchases. He began with the tenth branch, as if he had discovered nothing at the ninth. But here his efforts met with no success. Nor did they at the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth. But at the fourteen, with a feeling of pleased triumph, he discovered what he had hoped to find.”

I know, it sounds as if I’m making fun of it, and maybe I am…a little. But this is Crofts, in all his glorious meticulous detail, which results in the creation of a protagonist with tenacity and conviction, and I love it!

Tanner may have seemed a bit stiff at the beginning, but that perception quickly changes and Crofts reveals he has few qualms with his protagonists using devious methods to obtain information. Tanner is not above a little deceit, including multiple calling cards with false identities always at hand, to gain access to a suspect’s rooms and even remove potential evidence. I’ve not read a ton of Crofts, but his stand-alone detectives seem more willing to be a little more underhanded than Inspector French.

The only failing is that the mystery seems limited by such a small pool of suspects. But Crofts still introduces a small twist or two, keeping the reader puzzling it out until the very end.

If you are looking to read very well crafted, detective tales of the police procedural variety, then Freeman Wills Croft is the writer for you. I really do enjoy his work and highly recommend this one.

My Judgment – 4.25/5

Prior Rulings – JJ @ The Invisible EventMartin @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name?

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza – Vintage Mystery Challenge 2016: Scavenger Hunt – A country scene

Calendar of Crime Reading Challenge – November #9 – Family relationships play major role

18 thoughts on “The Ponson Case by Freeman Wills Crofts (1921)

  1. Thanks for linking to my review; as you can see from that, I loved this, and I’m with you that part of the fun of Crofts is in not taking him too seriously, especially at this early stage in his career. I wish I’d read his debut The Cask (1920) before this, because they make a fascinating one-two punch with which to open up a career and, I’d even posit, were more influential in shaping the genre that most of Agatha Christie’s first decade of output.

    There, the gauntlet has been thrown!

    1. Hmm but was it a shape that lasted much beyond the 1920s?
      Christie somewhat consolidates some of the tropes employed by Trent’s Last Case. We also get female killers, depiction of post war life, and some rule breaking. But perhaps the 1930s was where Christie more made her mark in terms of genre shaping? The 20s are a little bogged down with thrillers/espionage titles.

      1. Christie also extends the genius detective trope, a la Sherlock Holmes, where Crofts cemented the hard-working ordinary man detective — which, hell, became the norm for what happened in the 1940s and beyond, long after the genius went out of style.

        Sure, Christie had a huge influence on the Golden Age, but it was Crofts who shaped the nature of detection, which in turn evolved to become crime writing.

      2. Think that’s only partially right as a big part of “crime writing” is the more psychological aspects of mysteries and also the 1940s and beyond for that matter saw a huge rise in (domestic) suspense. Equally modern day writers are far more likely to want to riff on a plot structure or device used by Christie than Crofts.

      3. I disagree. The “aping” of Christie is pure marketing — we’ve all seen countless times the number of comparisons made to Christie in blurbs or interviews are simply done because Christie herself has been well-marketed and so remained the yardstick by which everyone claims to measure their own work. Even Sophie Hannah’s own Poirot books don’t ape Christie, and Hannah has said in endless interviews that they do.

        The modern obsession with forensics and the “ordinary wo/man” protagonist has its roots far more in Crofts’ unshowy plugging away than in anything Christie did.

      4. Surely the whole forensic angle is more covered by the work of R Austin Freeman, as he comes from it with a more sciencey angle.
        Police procedural novels today are not really written as Crofts would write them. They are more selective in what they include about an investigation (you wouldn’t get eons of pages tracking a parking ticket) and the writing style is also probably quite different, with the backstories of suspects and the detective being much more at the forefront. Different sort of pacing too.

      5. Ok…I’m going to try to weigh in here (heaven help me!).

        Kate, to your point “modern day writers are far more likely to want to riff on a plot structure or device used by Christie than Crofts.” That seems more of a modern market strategy than an evolution in the genre. I would never call Christie’s work “cozy”, but – the characters and plots she gave us lend themselves more easily to that sub-genre, which you must admit is highly marketable today (disclaimer – I do enjoy a good modern cozy from time to time).

        And to JJ’s point “Crofts who shaped the nature of detection, which in turn evolved to become crime writing”. Crofts developed and honed the police procedural. And while many consider the sub-genre (at least during that time) tedious and unimaginative, wasn’t it the foundation on which writer’s that followed (Rendell, Rankiin, etc.) could build?

      6. Could you perhaps specify how Crofts honed the police procedural? As for me he doesn’t particularly stand out alongside other contemporary police led mysteries – other than he bores me the most (probably). A E Fielding is one such writer, who started shortly after Crofts. It also doesn’t really feel like writers who started in the 30s are standing on his shoulders either – Punshon and Bude spring to mind.
        In contrast you can more easily, I feel, see how Sayers developed and then honed the novel of manners styled detective novel, which has had a noticeable ripple effect through later novels.
        I would also contend that Basil Thompson’s books follow more closely to our modern concept of a police procedural, as there is less of a “hero” detective like Inspector French and it is very much more of a police effort.

      7. Hmm…I knew I was going to regret entering the fray. I just believe that over the course of time he refined (not perfected) the character of the thourough, no-nonsense policeman, one who solves cases by dint of hard work and dogged persistence.

      8. haha Sorry! I am genuinely just curious. I can clearly see how the thorough no-nonsense policeman is fundamental to the French novels, I just can’t see how Crofts did the character in such a way everyone copied. But perhaps I have not read enough. Not that I think I will remedy that though…

      9. Oh it’s all good. I’m not half as well read as you all are…and still learning.

        I guess it is rather hard to see Crofts influence on how others wrote their characters because since then just about every detective had to have some quirk…until today’s modern detectives whose personal stories are often bigger than the mystery they are trying to solve 😳.

    2. I really enjoy these early books of his. You get a good sense of the Crofts style developing.

      Crofts being more influential than Christie is an interesting supposition. I’ve not read enough of either the make any comment on it though…intelligent or otherwise 🙄. But I’m sure your challenge will be accepted😜.

      1. The Pit-Prop Syndicate in the context of these two is equally fascinating to see him playing around with form and style. It’s not as successful as The Cask and Ponson, but I really got a sense of genre shift that was amazing to witness happening in real time.

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