Freeman Wills Crofts, setting the standard for the ‘police procedural’

January 21, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name that is heard these days along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but that’s because we’re living in the 21st century. If you were reading detective fiction in the 1930s, the “golden age” of the genre, you would be very familiar with Crofts and likely would have sampled some of his work.

Crofts was the master of the “inverted mystery,” the story where the killer is revealed to the reader early in the story and the detective must work things out with the reader watching. As such, Crofts offered his readers interesting characters, fascinating locations, and above all intricate plots.

Crofts’ stories often revolved around railroads or steamships. He knew these modes of transportation very well because of his training as an engineer and his professional experience working with the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway.

Crofts was born in 1879 in Dublin, Ireland, and by the time he was 17, he had attended two colleges in Belfast and was apprenticed as an engineer to his maternal uncle who worked for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. He took to the precise nature of the work and helped to design the expansion lines of the railway. He might have continued doing that for the remainder of his days, but in 1919, when he was 40 years old, he became ill and had to endure a long convalescence period.

It was during that time that he wrote his first novel, The Cask, which was published in 1920. It was a critical and commercial success and put Crofts at the forefront of the emerging genre. The Cask is still considered to be a masterpiece and thought by many critics to be Crofts’ best work.

Despite the success of his first novel, Crofts continued working at his job for another 10 years. He also continued to write, and during the rest of his life he published about a book a year until his death in 1957.

In 1929, he left his job and moved to a village south of London. He was now writing full-time, but he was also battling periodic bouts of ill-health. It was during this time that he became a member in good standing of the Detection Club, along with Christie, Sayers, Hugh Walpole, G.K. Chesterton, and other famous mystery writers.

Although the mystery novel was a well-established form, some writers experimented with variations, and Crofts was one of those. Not only did he write the inverted mysteries, he also occasionally had his characters, or a narrator, speak directly to the readers about clues or situations in the stories. He also occasionally tried his hand at humor.

In addition to his writing, Crofts was a serious musician and was organist and choirmaster in Killowen Parish Church, Coleraine, St. Patrick’s Church, Jordanstown.

Crofts was well-respected by writing colleagues, enough to be asked to contribute a chapter to the club’s round-robin novel, The Floating Admiral (see the post below). Crofts’ work, even though not read widely today, was important in setting the standard for what we know as the “police procedural.”

Note: Many of Crofts’ books are still in print and available for purchase. A few are contained on Project Gutenberg, FadedPage, and LibriVox. 

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