Thursday, February 1, 2018

“The 12:30 From Croydon” by Freeman Wills Crofts

Andrew Crowther, an elderly, retired manufacturer, is flying from Croydon in the U.K. to an airfield near Paris with a few members of his family. It’s a commercial flight, and Crowther’s granddaughter is thrilled and terrified to be traveling in a plane. We see the flight largely through her eyes, until the plane lands. Everyone has assumed that Crowther had fallen asleep. Actually, he’s dead.

A French doctor suspects the cause of death isn’t natural. The post-mortem, undertaken back in England, finds potassium cyanide in the body. The assumption is suicide – Crowther had been ailing and becoming increasingly frail. But the assumption is eventually laid aside; the police begin a murder investigation.

First published in 1934, The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts has very little to do with aviation; The murder takes place aboard a plane but that’s the only connection. The mystery novel was written at what was likely the peak of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920s-1940s), and it was unusual in that it was not a classic whodunit, which Crofts had been known for and was indeed acknowledged a master at writing. It was one of the early psychological mystery novels; it explores the why and how. From very early on, the reader knows who the killer is. The only question becomes whether the killer will get away with the crime.

It says much about Crofts skill that, as the story continues, the reader wants the killer to get away with it. The crime is reprehensible, and the killer is not particularly likeable. But the killer becomes something of the hero of the story.

Freeman Wills Crofts
Crofts (1879-1957) was considered one of the master writers of the period. His mysteries ranked with those of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, R. Austin Freeman, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh in the U.K. and with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the United States. Crofts wrote some 33 novels, several short story collections, and stage and radio plays. 

The 12:30 from Croydon goes far beyond the classic mystery story. Crofts’ ability to get the reader inside of the mind of the killer and gain the reader’s sympathy is flat-out remarkable. The story is a terrific read, and has lost none of its appeal after more than 80 years.


Top photograph: Airline travel in the 1930s.

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