‘Who would be a detective?’ Two thirds of the way through The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933), Inspector French asks this very question, and as the reader, I couldn’t help agreeing, having had to observe Inspector French’s thorough and mind dulling investigations – knowing even worse that the end was not in sight. You may be able to guess, this was not a favourite with me… but I get ahead of myself, let’s start back at the very beginning…
Our tale begins in Surrey, with Julia Earle driving back to her home with her sister Marjorie and their school friend Ursula, none of whom have seen each other for a while. Ursula is unmarried, living in Bath, working as an honorary secretary for a children’s hospital, whilst Marjorie is an author who mostly lives abroad and Julia has married a doctor considerably older than herself. Ursula is quick to spot that all is not well with Julia and her husband, discovering that not only is Julia having an affair with her neighbour Reggie Slade, but that Doctor Earle has been seen in London with a mysterious woman, dressed in grey. Although, both wife and husband appear to be being unfaithful, I did notice in the narration that it is Julia who receives the greater judgement. Something I did find interesting is the similarity in the way Doctor Earle is described, as a rather hen pecked husband and the way another certain doctor created by Frances Iles in Malice Aforethought (1931) two years earlier. Both doctors are described as ‘small’ and ‘insignificant’ and their spouses are both tall women who prefer being in charge. I also wondered whether having a character named Doctor Campion, was also a nod to Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. Doctor Campion, (who has a workshop as a hobby) and his sisters are friends of Ursula and also neighbours of Julia.
Although, there are some negative undercurrents in chez Julia, none of the characters are prepared for Doctor Earle’s disappearance. One minute he is sitting in his living room, paper and slippers and the next he has vanished, no belongings taken. Despite all of the inhabitants of Julia and Doctor Campion’s homes hunting for signs of Doctor Earle, there are none and a police call is necessitated. The difficulty for the police is, is that because it is suggested Doctor Earle had another woman, they think it is likely he has gone to her, but many discrepancies creep in (such as him not taking any money and leaving all his belongings) and the local police turn to Inspector French to help solve the mystery. High on the priority list is tracking down Doctor Earle’s woman, which although achieved, causes further confusion and mystery, as she too has vanished. Did they both leave voluntary or is there something more sinister afoot? A third character also commits a disappearing act, complicating the situation further.
After the initial problem of the disappearances, for me there was a lack of characterisation and the thoroughness of the police work (including tracking down a parking ticket) makes the novel a slow and at times painful read. Furthermore descriptive passages with Inspector French eulogising over the new bypass being built, did not add to the reading experience in a good way. Although in fairness the bypass does become more fundamental to the plot as the story progresses. The explanation chapter at the end where Inspector French reveals how he cracked the case is another point in the novel, which is painful to read in its thoroughness, although it is a first for me to have an explanation which includes page numbers to where clues were planted.
Overall there are a great deal of seemingly unbreakable alibis and the case presented to Inspector French is an interesting one. But for me the execution of the idea and the writing style adopted made it a hard read and I prefer Freeman Wills Croft’s later novel Antidote to Venom (1938), which is stronger in its characterisation and writing style (review of which can be found on my blog).
Rating: 2.5/ 5 (Having decided to give Freeman Wills Crofts another chance this year, I’m still not convinced I am going to become a fan of his)