Book name: The Hog’s Back Mystery
Author: Freeman Wills Croft
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Murder mystery
Publication Date: 1933
Star Rating: 4/5
I was drawn to the retro cover from this British Library Crime Classics book when I encountered it in my local secondhand bookshop.
The cover of The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts is drawn from a Thirties railway poster advertising trips to the popular Surrey downs.
Freeman Wills Crofts is a slightly less well-known name in murder mysteries from the golden age, the Thirties, than say Dorothy L Sayers or J Jefferson Farjeon. His writing style was also very different.
Freeman Wills Crofts wrote more than thirty detective novels, and in a real illustration of the strength of his writing his fans included Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.
Inspector French is called down from Scotland Yard to investigate the sudden disappearance of a semi-retired local doctor. His efforts focus on Dr Earle’s personal life.
The doctor lied to his wife about his whereabouts one day just before his disappearance, but he was then seen by their house guest in London with a young woman. The assumption is that the doctor and Helen Nankivel have run away together.
This supposition leads French off on a characteristically thorough investigation of all the possible suspects and motives.
Mrs Earle, Mrs Earle’s lover Slade, her sister Marjorie, their house guest Ursula, Dr Earle’s partner Dr Campion and his sister Alice all fall under suspicion.
Yet all appear to have alibis, and the body of Dr Earle has not been found.
More than ever, it appears that the doctor has run away with Helen. However, Inspector French is not entirely satisfied with this explanation. The detective persists until the doctor’s body is eventually found near his home.
The body’s discovery disproves French’s initial assumption that the doctor has run away, or been murdered by his wife when his intention to do so became clear. Mrs Earle could not have disposed of her husband’s body in this way.
This development opens up the plot to include other motives for the doctor’s murder and brings in fresh suspects to expand the narrative.
Freeman Wills Crofts has a very unusual writing style. Most murder mysteries intersperse action involving the various suspects with some scenes written in from the detective’s point of view.
I always think this makes the various suspects more vivid, because the reader gets to see from themselves who is possibly involved. We can then form some theories of our own as to the identity of the murderer. We all love to do that!
By contrast, in The Hog’s Back Mystery, Freeman Wills Croft tells the story entirely from the point of view of Inspector French once the initial introduction to the suspects is provided.
This structure provided a unique glimpse into the mind of the detective. It also supported a much more complex plot than is customary in murder mysteries.
On the other hand, the suspects remained distant, slightly unknowable figures for the reader precisely because we see everything filtered through the eyes of Inspector French.
I didn’t mind that so much, though I’m not sure I’d like every murder mystery I read to be approached in this way.
The strength of The Hog’s Back Mystery lies in the way that Freeman Wills Croft provides an immensely complex plot. It features so many twists and turns that it really has to be kept in the capable hands of the detective himself.
I loved The Hog’s Back Mystery for being simply so different to other murder mysteries, and also for its location in a beautiful part of southern England that I know really well.
The climax was both unexpected and entirely credible, and the explanation from the detective that completed the tale and unmasked the culprits would hold its own with any that I’ve seen from Marple or Poirot.
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