WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
Note: This book was also published in the US under the title The Strange Case of Dr. Earle, although that title is considerably more uncommon.
What’s this book about?
In the opening chapters, we are introduced to a small-scale domestic situation near Hog’s Back, which is a geographic feature of Britain’s North Downs (and close to where the author lived). Dr. and Mrs. Earle, and the doctor’s assistant physician Dr. Campion, are entertaining some house guests, Julia Earle’s sister Marjorie Lawes, and their mutual friend Ursula Stone. Everything is bucolic on the surface, but Ursula soon learns that her hostess appears to be conducting at least a flirtation with rabbit-faced young Reggie Slade from the next-door manor. (Everyone else is close to middle age or beyond.) When Ursula visits Dr. Campion’s sister Alice, who lives close by, she confirms that the Earles are not the happy couple they seem on the surface; Julia has a roving eye and likes to spend money, and the spouses quarrel frequently. Then, quite by accident, Ursula sees Dr. Earle giving a lift to a striking woman whom she doesn’t recognize — and the doctor later lies about where he was at the time.
The evening before she leaves, Julia spends the evening with Dr. Campion, Alice, and another sister Flo, talking about old times and admiring Dr. Campion’s woodworking shop. The party drives Ursula back to the Earles’ home only to learn that, in the last few hours, Dr. Earle has mysteriously vanished from the house, hatless and wearing house slippers.
The household raises the alarm and begins to search the grounds and vicinity, but Dr. Earle, alive or dead, is nowhere to be found. The local constabulary is also unable to locate any trace and so Inspector French of Scotland Yard is called in.
From this point, the remainder of the novel is told from French’s view. He repeats his thorough search and then begins to widen the net, trying to consider whether Earle has disappeared of his own accord or by the acts of an enemy. There are a couple of tiny clues that are more loose ends than anything concrete, but French investigates Ursula Stone’s sighting of the striking woman in more depth. Similarly he takes in the information about the possible extra-marital activities of both the Earles into account.
I think you’ll enjoy this book more if I say very little about the plot beyond this point. I’ll merely say that two more people connected with the strange case of Dr. Earle also vanish mysteriously, and Inspector French’s dogged and painstaking investigation of the underlying crimes and motives occupies the entire remainder of the novel. He learns many things about many people, finds some tiny physical clues from which he gleans a surprisingly large amount of information, traces everyone’s movements in the smallest detail, and all in all exhibits magnificent police skills that allow him to solve the crime and enable the guilty to be punished. The ending is quite surprising, especially in some details of what really happened and the degree to which the crime was planned in advance.
Why is this worth reading?
In this blog post from last year, I talked about the difference between the police procedural and what I call the “detective novel”. This, to me, is a detective novel, because it follows the actions and thinking of a single detective as he solves a single crime. I agree that there are other levels of the Scotland Yard/constabulary organization in play here, especially the wonderfully-named Sergeant Sheepshanks; they do things like follow people around and confirm French’s suspicions about various elements of the case. Importantly to the distinction, though, we don’t really partake of their investigatory thoughts. Indeed the constabulary function is pretty much to leap to the wrong investigatory conclusion so that Inspector French looks smarter.
This is, in fact, a timetable novel. And what is a timetable novel? Rather a specialty of Crofts, who may not have invented it but certainly perfected it. Essentially Inspector French starts investigating the alibis of every person in his case, in order to find who might have been at a certain place at a certain time. One character’s perfect alibi cannot be confirmed in some detail, or seems a little off. French digs and digs and worries at every tiny portion of the alibi until a thread comes loose, and he is finally able to demonstrate that the perfect alibi has been hocussed by the murderer in some complicated and difficult way. The reason this is known as a timetable novel is — well, let me give you a quote that shows the issue for Inspector French. (I’ve omitted full names so as not to give too much away.)
“But this matter of the alibi was fundamental to his progress. … Item by item he went over the thing again in his mind, with the sole result of becoming more puzzled than ever. X and his car were definitely at Petersfield at 4.0 p.m. Of that there could be no doubt; it was checked by the people he had visited. From St. Kilda to Petersfield was something like 21 miles, part of it over narrow and twisting roads. It would be impossible to run the distance in half an hour. But at 3.30 W was alive. The servant, L, had seen her just before going out. And L had unquestionably caught the bus which passed the house at 3.35. There was her own evidence, and that of the friends to whom she was going, as also of the bus company as to their service, all of which points French had checked. It was certain, therefore, that X could not have committed the murder before reaching Petersfield.”
Note the phrase, “all of which points French had checked.” We have indeed met “the servant, L,” and had her evidence, and we have seen that French is delighted to telephone or visit bus companies — or any other corporation — to find out that the 3.35 bus had run on time that day, and if not why not. French, indeed, is like Robert Heinlein’s character of Anne, the Fair Witness — who, when asked what colour a distant horse is, says, “It’s white on this side.” Inspector French checks everything right down to the smallest detail and we get to see him do it.
To me, this is delightful stuff. Some critics of Crofts will suggest that his work is lacking in characterization and I entirely agree. The servant, L, for example, is barely even there. There’s not a word of description of what she looks like, merely a recitation of her evidence. One lady “replied frigidly, but with evident irritation” to one of French’s questions, and this is pretty much the only description of her emotional state that we are given (although she is quite condescending to him in a way that you can only get by reading the entire exchange). These aren’t really characters as we know them in modern novels. They are little plastic figures that French is moving around a board, trying to figure out what happened. I expect Crofts would have said that he deliberately kept characterization out of it, so that the grander game of the solution to the puzzle could get on without causing false trails due to one or another character being more vivid or dramatic than others. Part of it for me is that, although French is faultlessly polite, he doesn’t really care or need to care about the emotions of the people with whom he interacts, except as those emotions provide a possible motive for criminal actions; at least, that seems to allow me to suspend my disbelief that a man who can spot a fragment of paper with a few letters on it can fail to notice that a woman is furious at his questions.
But without characterization, what we have is a large scale logic problem that we see solved before us by Inspector French. It’s not quite as cold and artificial as “The lady in blue who lives next door to the man who owns the sheepdog is not named Barker.” People are variously unhappy; they are sad when they lose their loved ones, and they are angry at being involved on the periphery of a murder investigation even though they have nothing to do with it. But to be honest, this whole book is about the experience of watching Inspector French solving this puzzle, and feeling on-side with him as he does it.
This is cleverly built in two ways. One is that Crofts has written this particular volume to lead you down a certain garden path; French doesn’t jump to conclusions, but it seems as though he gets to the gist of a clue a millisecond before the reader does. He has his little “aha!” moment, and then you do … because Crofts has phrased it in such a way that the reader allows himself the tiny logical leap that isn’t perhaps justified, but is very satisfying. “By golly, I’ll bet *I* could have been a Scotland Yard inspector, I figured that out!” Yes, because Crofts carefully led you to the threshold and let French carry you over. The second cleverness is that we find it easy to identify with French because he’s so damn … nice. He’s four-square and plays the game and is pukka sahib and stiff upper lip and any number of other cliches that purport to describe the essential goodness of the British character. He is straight up with his suspects; in fact it’s charming to see him getting pouty when they accuse him of trying to trick them. He is thoroughly married, it seems, and never has an impure thought about any female. But he does disapprove of inappropriate behaviour among any of the classes, disreputable servants and rakish aristos coming in for a larger share of his internal tsk-tsking.
In this volume, I came across a tiny paragraph that just sums up Inspector French to me.
“Tired but not discouraged, French went out after dinner to try what Farnham could do in the way of amusement. He saw a first-rate film about a trainload of persons who were held up by bandits in the disturbed East, but who after surprising adventures safely reached their journey’s end, and much refreshed in mind, he went up to bed.”
And that’s the guy I want to investigate my murder. As near as I can tell, Crofts is indicating by French’s choice of cinematic entertainment that he is either of the upper reaches of the lower classes, or, more probably, in the middle or artisan class. This is not the film that an upper-class person would have chosen; it seems wholesome, unromantic, and un-bawdy and thus would not attract servants. I like Inspector French; I would like to entertain this shy little man to dinner and hear the stories of his adventures after a brandy or two. And Crofts has given him just enough personality to make that the case, possibly because it stretches the limits of his skill at characterization to do so. Not too little — not too much, so that he anticipates modern ScandiNoir. Just right.
When considering any Golden Age mystery, I try to always find things in the book that educate me about the social context at the time. Here there is frankly very little of interest … nothing of the minutiae of everyday life that I find so fascinating. There were a few points that interested me, though. My understanding is that Crofts was what one might think of as a “moral” writer — PG-13, in modern parlance — and I was surprised at the general attitude in this book towards the possibility of both Dr. Earle and his wife having an extra-marital affair. To be honest, there is not really a suggestion that either party is slipping off for a cinq-à-sept with anyone; the idea is that one spouse would have occasion to complain about the potentially inappropriate friendships of the other. Certainly there is disapproval and a sense that the spouses are making a mistake. But there’s nothing that indicates they’re going to lose their social status as a result, and that interested me. However, it’s difficult to analyze what the absence of a reaction in a novel means.
There are certainly things in this book about which I want to learn more. Apparently, for instance, DIY types in 1933 were being offered the chance to construct a doll’s house from pre-made pieces, and this was an unexceptional idea. And there is quite a bit of observational material that depends upon the social status of a hospital nurse in society that is tantalizingly enigmatic. Crofts is not precise about whether he thinks a member of the upper classes is having it off with a nurse; it’s as though the characters are all agreed that either “Yes, that’s the sort of thing nurses do,” or “No, nurses would never do THAT” — but they don’t tell you what their assumption is. The unspoken assumptions are much more clear to the author, the characters, and the putative readers than they are to me. She’s not quite a servant and not quite a member of the middle class. I remember a reference in another mystery to a servant who was addressed as Cook, and who was voluble about one’s employer having to pay for the privilege of “calling you out of your name”. Parlourmaids were merely Judkins or Smoot, but one had to be earning a larger salary to be called Cook — or Nurse, as this lady was. And yet not a member of the professional or artisan classes — almost like French himself. I’m sure Miss Silver or Miss Marple could lay it out for me in detail, but the social context is just a little elusive in this novel.
There’s an elegant conceit at the end of this novel that I feel compelled to mention. In the “blow-off” in the final pages, where Inspector French Explains It All To You, there is the very scarce device of the “clue finder”. That is to say, when Inspector French says that he noticed such-and-such a clue, you are referred to the page upon which the revelation took place, so in the e-version the last chapter is a forest of hyperlinks. This is actually very good for the novice mystery-solver, who can bounce around in the book and know just where they’ve gone wrong. There aren’t many mystery writers who expended the time to put in these clue-finders; Crofts, Ronald Knox, John Dickson Carr, and C. Daly King are among the few. It signals that, whatever caveats you may wish to put upon the definition, the author of a book containing a clue-finder is trying to “play fair” with the reader, and I like that.
Summing up: reading this novel is rather like sitting behind the shoulder of Inspector French as he solves the case, but it’s less like an exciting narrative and more like someone who has enlisted your help to solve a difficult crossword. French seems to get there just a moment before the reader does, and to this reader at least, that’s a very enjoyable experience. There’s no real way that the reader could determine why the criminal plot works the way it does, so all that you can do is observe the clues as French sees them and hope to put them together before he does. The plot is tricky, and the solution to the puzzle is difficult but based on clues that you can look back and see. French is a charming detective with whom to share the experience.
My experience is that Crofts novels appeal to a wide spectrum of readers, which I think is unusual. Admittedly there is none of the depth of characterization that seems to attract many readers to the modern mystery, but Inspector French has a quality that I term “charm” that carries this novel (and many other adventures of Inspector French) very successfully to a satisfying conclusion. If you like the idea of a timetable mystery, you’ll really like this one.
I realize that I have been known to focus on rare mysteries that cost a lost of money if you are lucky enough to find one to purchase. It’s therefore delightful to say that for once you can have this novel inexpensively with the click of a mouse; it’s in print in both paper and e-book and available on Amazon at prices ranging from $7.27 to $150-plus. My thanks to British Library Crime Classics for bringing this great mystery back into print.
My favourite edition
Although the first editions, both US and UK, are very attractive indeed, and worth the pretty prices that I see on online bookselling sites — I like the look of the Pan paperback you see at the left very much indeed. The colours are beautiful, the antique wood-cut look is very attractive and the artwork is dramatic and striking. Even the typography and general design evoke a period of Pan when they were at their height in selecting good mysteries for their line. I’d love to have a copy of this one.
However, my current favourite edition is the British Library Crime Classic reissue in shades of sage green seen at the head of this article. Not only is the faux-30s illustration done very well indeed, but it has the added benefit of a good introduction by mystery expert and fiction writer Martin Edwards, who produced an engrossing history of the Detection Club last year. Martin Edwards gives you enough background information about Crofts himself to make the book’s context more interesting, and the little introductory essay is a pleasant appetizer before the meat of the novel.