I Learned a Bit More About Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish mystery writer during the golden age of mysteries. His most famous detective was Inspector French. According to Masters of Mystery, he worked on a railroad and included his extensive knowledge of railways systems and places that they visit into his stories.

What I didn’t realize, until I recently read an article about him, was that many of his stories, and especially his earlier stories, were inverted detective stories. That is, rather than being whodunnits, they were howcatchems. I was surprised to learn that style of story (one can’t quite call it a mystery) was popular so early on. (Crofts sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his novels.)

The same article in which I found this out also said that the novels featuring Dr. Thorndyke, the detective of R. Austin Freeman, were also howcatchems rather than whodunnits. In fact, the Dr. Thorndyke novels were supposed to be so entirely about how the culprit was caught that scientific experiments—all of them performed by the author himself prior to writing about them—were (apparently) the chief amusement of the books.

Prior to learning about these detectives, the only inverted detective stories with which I was familiar were the episodes of the TV show Columbo. I never gave it much thought, but while if I was forced to make a guess I’d have guessed that someone had done an inverted detective story prior to Columbo, I never realized that it was actually popular prior to Columbo. It’s curious how much, in the circle of people I know, the earlier examples faded into obscurity. Though sometimes the characters are preserved longer than their authors.

I cannot recall having encountered, in my own time, anyone talking about Freeman Wills Crofts, nor have I heard anyone talk about R. Austin Freema. Dr. Thorndyke, however, is referred to fairly often in at least one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, more than one. In the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, they sometimes talk about what Dr. Thorndyke would make of what they’ve found.

I find it a bit surprising to learn that Dr. Thorndyke wasn’t in mysteries but rather howcatchems. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though. It was only a howcatchem from the reader’s perspective. From Dr. Thorndyke’s perspective, he was every bit as engaged in trying to solve a mystery as Lord Peter was.

The references to Dr. Thorndyke and learning more about him are also a curious vantage point onto popular culture references aging. The first few times I read the stories I had no idea who Dr. Thorndyke was except what was implied by how he was referenced; he was a brilliant Sherlock Holmes type. Past that, I knew nothing. Now that I know more, it is curious that the reference doesn’t really mean more to me than it did. Perhaps that would change if I were to actually read the Dr. Thorndyke stories—I can’t really say without having read them, of course. (I did just order the first book, The Red Thumb Mark, off of Amazon to at least read the first chapter.)

I think that this does point to popular culture references, if done with enough context to explain them, working reasonably well. It is handy, for example, that Dr. Thorndyke is a doctor; the prefix helps to clarify that the name refers to a person and not a company or a place, for example. Having the other person respond in some fashion also helps, because the response will, itself, help to fill in some of the knowledge necessary to understand the reference.

Popular culture references also adds something interesting to track down and to discuss with one’s friends. It’s curious what little tid bits of history get preserved by offhand comments from people who only ever existed in a writer’s imagination, prompting others to research these things and write down what they were.

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