Forgotten Book of 1920: The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Last week after deciding to join the #1920 Club, I asked which of the four books on my wishlist should definitely be read for the event. Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, rooted strongly for Crofts’ debut: The Cask. [Nick’s review of the book can be read over here]. Thanks Nick and here am I.

Tom Broughton, a junior clerk at the Insular and Continental Navigation Co., is asked to oversee the unloading of a consignment of wine which has just arrived from France and he hurries to the docks, glad to be out of the stuffy office:

To Broughton these boats represented links with the mysterious, far-off world of romance, and he never saw one put to sea without longing to go with her to Copenhagen, Bordeaux, Lisbon, Spezzia, or to whatever other delightful-sounding place she was bound.

[Doesn’t that quote delight you also?]

As Broughton watches, a few casks overbalance. Two are undamaged, from one, wine spills, and from the fourth, which is quite unlike the other casks, sovereigns roll out. Broughton and Harkness, the foreman, decide to investigate and open the crack a little more…only to recoil because they feel a hand inside the cask. But is it a statue or a human hand?

Before they can get their bearings, a Frenchman, Lenon Felix arrives, claiming the cask. Broughton delays things taking Felix to the main office and asking Harkness not to release the cask. However, Felix is able to somehow get the cask away. Inspector Burnley takes over the case and the cask is located. Only it disappears again, appears, and disappears again. Finally, at the end of Part I of the book, the cask is finally located and after it is opened, the body of a young woman is found inside it. Felix collapses at seeing the corpse and is taken to the hospital. Meanwhile Inspector Burnley crosses the channel and along with the help of Surete Inspector M.Lefarge tries to solve the case. At the end of their investigations, Felix is charged with murder. In the third part of the novel, a private detective tries to prove that Felix is innocent. Does he succeed?

When I read my first Crofts, Sir John Macgill’s Last Journey, I became convinced that though I may instinctively guess the identity of a murderer in a Crofts novel, I’ll never be able to guess his/ her identity through the painstaking efforts undertaken by the investigator. The meticulous going through timetables, the dogged persistence of examining the coming and going is beyond me. And in this novel as one cask became two casks and then three casks and started travelling across the channel and as the casks were joined by people also travelling from France to England to Scotland to Belgium, I simply read on, not bothering about the days and dates and hours of arrival and departure, just enjoying the investigative procedure of the inspectors and wondering whether the person I thought was the murderer would turn out to be the killer or not.

And the investigative procedure is pretty well done. I especially liked the middle part when the investigation moved to Paris. The Chief of the Surete, the “Great Man” is not like the Assistant Commissioners or Chief Constables who sit back and listen to the reports of the Inspectors and pass a comment or two, instead he is a commanding presence who takes daily reports at the time that he has fixed (though both the Inspectors grumble about it) and directs the course of the investigation. Further, the investigation doesn’t mean the two Inspectors forget about the entertainment afforded by Paris, they watch a play, sup in the cafes, and take boat rides. There is no undue haste. While the cart carrying the pieces of the cask lumbers in they exchange polite notes, read newspapers, and even take people they are interrogating for meals. The French are uniformly polite. Everybody is all monsieur, monsieur; money is given to the labouring class for help rendered; and nobody is begrudging of time (the contrast with a denizen of UK becomes rather stark). It was such a wonderful experience and I could understand Inspector Burnley’s regret when he has to come back to London.

After such an entertaining second act, the third act seems like such a drag. As the detective retraces the steps of the two inspectors the book becomes repetitive. Also since I had liked the two inspectors the detective did not appeal to me much. Why didn’t Crofts have the two inspectors continue with the investigation as the evidence against Felix was basically circumstantial? The ending too seemed rushed though one has to admire the confidence of the murderer.

Have you read this? What are your views?

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First Line: Mr. Avery, managing director of the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, had just arrived at his office.

Publication Details: NY: Dover Publications, 1977

First Published: 1920

Pages: 316

Source: Faded Page

Other books read of the same author: The Hog’s Back Mystery; Sir John Macgill’s Last Journey

Other opinions: A Crime is Afoot; Bedford Bookshelf; Beneath the Stains of Time; Classic Mysteries; Dead Yesterday; The Grandest Game in the World; The Invisible Event; Mystery File

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Submitted for Friday’s Forgotten Books and The #1920 Club

16 thoughts on “Forgotten Book of 1920: The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Why didn’t Crofts have the two inspectors continue with the investigation as the evidence against Felix was basically circumstantial?

    At the time of writing, Crofts was under the impression that he’d be paid more for a longer book — he later went on record as saying that he regretted making the final section so long. Fun fact: it originally ended with a courtroom showdown, just as Christie wrote for The Mysterious Affair at Styles and, just like Christie, Crofts removed it and rewrote the finale.

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    1. Welcome to the blog, JJ.

      Thanks for the information. Didn’t he have an editor from the publishing house who could have advised him both about the length and the payment? And I am very glad it did not have a courtroom showdown. I rather liked the idea of the person relaxing in the club. What arrogance!

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      1. I’m sorry I’m so late to your blog — had I realised you were here, I’d have been over much sooner 🙂

        Given how The Cask was Crofts’ debut, I’m guessing not — if I remember correctly, he started writing is during a period of convalescence several years earlier, and by the time he finished it I imagine he was pleased just to have it done!

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  2. I haven’t read this but it’s on my TBR since it’s one of the books Martin Edwards lists in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Shame the third part dragged, but I’m glad you enjoyed most of it.

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  3. Like you, I enjoyed the book, esp. the extremely detailed procedural element and the variety in scenery as we follow the investigation in Britain, France and Belgium. And also like you, I was very happy to simply follow the investigators rather than try to outwit them. You raise a very good point about the chief of the Surete.

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    1. Welcome to the blog, Christophe.

      I am so happy you have commented because finally I can thank you for following the blog. It is most encouraging. 🙂

      Since I lack the diligence needed to be a Croftsian investigator, it is better to just tag along. I am glad you liked the point about the Chief of the Surete, I really admired that aspect of it.

      Please leave a link if you have reviewed the book, I’d love to visit.

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    1. Welcome to the blog, Simon.

      Yeah, the final section was not as interesting as the other two. Sorry to hear you had a similar experience with another one of his.

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