Hog’s Back is an actual place – it’s part of the North Downs in Surrey in the United Kingdom, lying between the towns of Guildford and Farnham. It’s not far from London. And it is the area, in The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, with its small and large country homes, winding lanes, walking paths, farms, woods, where a series of suspected murders is committed.
The key phrase here is “suspected murders.” A semi-retired doctor has simply disappeared. One minute he is reading the newspaper after dinner, and the next minute he is gone. At first thinking he has gone for a walk, his wife, sister-in-law and a house guest aren’t that concerned. But time passes, and concern gives way to fear that something has happened.
The local police call in New Scotland Yard, personified by Inspector Joseph French (who stars in a number of Crofts mystery stories). Once French is on the case, he’s like a terrier who keeps digging and digging until the dirt and dust are cleared away and a crime lies open to the naked eye.
The Hog’s Back Mystery was first published in 1933, and has been republished in the British Library Crime Classics series. It’s a fascinating story; the reader, like Inspector French, doesn’t know for the longest time whether a crime has actually been committed. When a nurse the doctor worked with is also reported missing, it begins to look like two lovers have run away.
That is, until a third person goes missing.
Crofts (1879-1957) was considered one of the master writers in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, roughly covering the 1920s and 1930s. His name and his stories ranked with Agatha Christie, Margarey Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, R. Austin Freeman, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Mars among others, in the United Kingdom, and with the somewhat more hardboiled school writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the United States. Crofts wrote some 33 novels, several short story collections, and stage and radio plays. The Hog’s Back Mystery is one of two by Crofts republished by the British Library in its series, the other being Antidote to Venom.
|Freeman Wills Crofts|
Crofts only turning to full-time mystery writing in his late 40s. Prior to that, he was involved with railways. In his late teens, was apprenticed to an uncle involved with railroad construction (and a railway project plays a key role in The Hog’s Back Mystery.) It’s no coincidence that the story has a “construction engineering” feel to it.
Once Inspector French determines a crime has indeed been committed, his focus becomes the how instead of the who. All of the possible suspects (six of them) have cast-iron alibis. Slowly and methodically, French unravels what has happened.
The Hog’s Back Mystery is an entertaining story, offering a deep glimpse into the kind of mysteries that were so popular 80 and 90 years ago – and by author who deserves to be better known than he is.
Related: My reviews of other British Library Crime Classics
Photograph: A view of Hog’s Back in the North Downs of Surrey, via Wikimedia Commons.