Frank Froest is another author who has been retrieved from obscurity in the recent wave of reprinting classic detective fiction. I was intrigued by this book for many reasons, one of which is this is regarded as one of the early examples of the police procedural novel. This was a claim I was keen to examine and later in this review I shall do exactly that. Another reason this novel piqued my interest was that the author himself, was a superintendent at Scotland Yard and in 1906 was in charge of CID and Tony Medawar in the introduction to my copy of the story highlights the similarities between Froest and his fictional detective, Heldon Foyle. Froest had a successful career in the police force and was involved in a lot of famous cases at the time such as arresting Jabez Balfour in Argentina 1895, who was on the run after a financial scandal and in 1910 Froest was involved in the arrest of Dr Crippen. The Grell Mystery (1913) was written a year after he had begun his retirement.
The start of this novel is action packed. On the night before he is to marry Lady Eileen Meredith, Robert Grell, a famous explorer and politician, tells his friend, Sir Ralph Fairfield to pretend he is at his club while he goes to meet someone, still carrying his expensive pearls for Eileen in his pocket. All seems perfectly fine, although Ralph does have qualms lying to Eileen about Robert’s whereabouts. Things take a dramatic turn for the worst though, when a body purportedly Robert’s is found murdered in Robert’s study, stabbed with an unusually designed dagger. However, it quickly appears that everything is what it seems, as the body is not Robert’s, but that of a known crook, Harry Goldenburg. This begs the question where is Robert now? And why has Ivan, his valet and the expensive pearls also vanished? And who was the heavily veiled woman who came to visit Robert that night?
Enter Superintendent Foyle, whose job it is to solve the case. Froest takes great pains to avoid giving Foyle Holmes-like attributes, saying he eschews such things as dressing gowns and violins. He also has a sense of humour which ‘saved him from making mistakes.’ An odd claim, and in my opinion not an entirely justifiable one, but more on that later. Aside from Eileen, another woman is introduced into the picture, named Lola, also known as Princess of Petrovska. For quite a while many of the characters involved are duped into thinking Grell is the corpse, leading to an irate and bratty Eileen vowing vengeance. Not unsurprisingly for a detective novel most of the characters are uncooperative with the police, though Foyle does make some use of Fairfield. The first half of the novel is especially fast paced with various characters being tailed, Foyle donning disguises and one policeman even getting kidnapped. These small instances however are rather telling of Foyle’s character, showing him to be a man who prefers and gets a kick out of doing maverick police work by himself, often acting impulsively. Later on these moments do pay off but initially Foyle’s antics actually cause problems such as revealing to his suspects what he is up to. Moreover, the kidnapping situation also reveals a much more unsympathetic side to Foyle and indicates that he is far more tolerant of his own mistakes than others.
Success is not quickly achieved for Foyle as time and time again he insists on either doing one man stunts or taking far too few men to complete a task, meaning suspects keep on continually escaping. Despite this elongating the novel and preventing it from being too short, to the reader such behaviour may seem a bit daft and I actually found it at odds with the concept that this is supposed to be a police procedural type of novel, as this subgenre is supposed to emphasise the ‘collaborative process of investigation requiring hierarchical institutional relationships, well-established systems of communication, and shared expertise’ (Horsley, 2010: 35). However, this idea does become more apparent at other points in the novel when various police characters have different tasks to complete. The efficiency of the police does show because as the other characters who seem involved in the mystery at Grell’s house try to plot and evade the police, the police keep on uncovering what they are up to. Foyle is determined to track down Grell, systematically removing his sources of support and confederates, confident that the solution to the case will finally be revealed. But what will the solution be? This story keeps its cards close to its’ chest, even in my opinion withholding information from the reader, and the suspects involved are far from communicative, so the ending is a tricky one to predict.
The character of Foyle interested me greatly when reading this story. Although a policeman known for being successful, some of his actions were rather troubling. For example on a rescue mission to find the kidnapped policeman, not only does he fail to do so, but he gets so preoccupied with other things that he completely forgets about the task in hand. Furthermore he gets annoyed with another police official who isn’t keen on putting his men into unnecessarily risky and dangerous situations. For me, his questionable behaviour is rooted in his obsession with doing heroic feats singlehandedly and in a way he has a bit of a hero complex. In addition despite being a respected policeman, he is not above bending the rules sometimes to discover the truth and his method of finally capturing the killer is a little questionable, and probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen today.
However, this might tie slightly into the subgenre of the police procedural, where the ethics of police detectives’ behaviour come into question. Despite Foyle’s hero complex stealing the lime light at points, I think this book does show the wide range of people and structures involved in a police investigation and even shows how detective agencies from around the world are brought into help such as the Pinkertons. Moreover, great intuitive leaps are not made and the investigation includes rigorous routine work, although thankfully unlike Freeman Wills Crofts, this work is writing much more entertainingly. Although, unlike some more modern police procedurals this book only focuses on one crime and the name of the killer is kept a mystery until the end, which is more in keeping with the traditional whodunit.
Overall, I think this was a good read, especially the first half. The ending was a little disappointing as it combined the unfortunate qualities of being both rushed and repetitive. Moreover, the choice of killer annoyed me (whose behaviour retrospectively seems rather bizarre), though this probably is just me, although I think snobbishness rather influenced how the various characters were treated. Moreover, I think the fact the beginning is so action packed and dramatic it is hard for Froest to maintain it all the way through the novel, meaning the ending lacks energy you would expect it to have, though again this could just be me and I would be interested to hear how other people found the novel.
Horsley, L. (2010). From Sherlock Holmes to the Present. In: Rzepka, C. and Horsley, L. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 28-42.