The 12:30 from Croydon is the second mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts I have read. Interestingly, they both feature Inspector French and yet could not be more different. Mystery in the Channel is a traditional whodunnit in which French breaks alibis to figure out the culprit. In The 12:30 from Croydon we not only know whodunnit, we are following the murderer from before he even conceived the crime.
Crofts was a founding member of The Detection Club, the venerable gathering of the best mystery writers whose rules for detective fiction still sound good to me. I still judge a mystery on its fairness and feel shortchanged when key information is withheld from us. This is the sort of mystery Crofts excelled at, exactingly fair procedurals. For The 12:30 from Croydon, he was venturing into the psychological thriller genre, a new development in mystery fiction, revealing how Charles Swinburn came to the unwelcome conclusion that his uncle had to die and taking us through the meticulous planning and execution of that and yet another murder.
I was surprised to like this book even more than Mystery in the Channel. I generally prefer mysteries to focus on solving the murder and dislike the mysteries inside the mind of the murderer. Of course, most of the time when a writer puts us inside the mind of a murderer, the killer is a psychopathic serial killer. That is not our Charles. He is, in his view, just a guy trying achieve the greatest good for the most people, really, it’s a service he is doing. Well, not quite. He has pangs of conscience, but they are far less than his narcissism and his determination to “help others” as he persuades himself he is doing.
This is why I like this book so much. So often, when we are allowed into the mind of a killer, he is so very buahhh-haaa-haaa evil that I am turned off. Charles, though, is uncomfortably familiar. He is a person who would never have chosen murder in the ordinary course of events, but when in extremis, could justify anything on utilitarian motives. Isn’t that really what most murderers are like?
Inspector French’s involvement is almost completely off the page. We are with Charles, not French, and we don’t know what French is up to until the final coda, a chapter gathering the lawyers and police to explain how they figured it out. I am not sure that French’s tip-off is one that most police would think of and with a less fictional inspector, it is likely that someone else would have been indicted, but the beauty of these old classics is that all’s well that ends well.
The 12:30 from Croydon will be released on February 7, 2017. I was provided an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.