The disappearance of Freeman Wills Crofts

Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Freeman Wills Crofts. What do they have in common? In the 1930s they were the three biggest names in crime fiction in Britain. Does that surprise you? It certainly surprised me. I don't know who I'd have placed third – Ngaio Marsh, perhaps, who was from New Zealand but whose books were set, and widely read, here. (Crofts was himself from Ireland, but like Marsh wrote books set in Britain.)

Unlike Adam Diment, Croft didn't disappear for real, but his books have vanished from the shelves. American publishing house Dover reprinted some novels in the 1970s, and British publisher Hogarth did in the 1980s. I've slowly accumulated a number of them over the years, mainly from the Oxfam bookshop in Bath. According to the entry for Freeman Wills Crofts on Wikipedia, in 2000 36 of his books were in print in paperback. This comes as a real surprise to me because I can't recall ever seeing one on the shelf in Waterstones, but a quick search of crime novel specialists Murder One's website turns up six of his novels. (I already have four, and at £12 for the new ones, I'll keep looking in Oxfam!)

I think it's telling that none of Crofts' novels have been filmed or made into television programmes. Agatha Christie's novels were being filmed by the late 1920s, while Sayers' Peter Wimsey stories have been adapted for television. The truth is, Crofts created brilliantly constructed stories, but not brilliantly constructed characters, and on screen personalities do hook the viewer as much as the plot. Miss Marple, with her intricate knowledge of human behaviour, poking into the closet of English village life. Fussy Poirot, with access to grand houses and the most stylish people, not to mention exotic locations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Orient Express. Poor old Inspector French, spending time on ordinary trains and boats and in generally mundane locations can't possibly compete.

Nonetheless, I will continue to collect Crofts' books when I see them because he does construct a meticulous tale, and while they may not be great for translating to screen, they're very enjoyable to read and think about.


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