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Freeman Wills Crofts - Meet Inspector French

A fascinating insight into the character written by the author

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I HAVE been asked to tell you something about Chief-Inspector Joseph French of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard. I shall do my best, but I thought it would give you a better idea of him if I were to bring the man himself to the microphone. So with a good deal of trouble I have persuaded him to come, and he'll speak to you himself. But I have put him in the next room for the moment,, lest his ears should burn from my introduction.

    As he's not here, then, I may say that he's really quite a good fellow at heart. He's decent and he's straight and he's as kindly as his job will allow. He believes that if you treat people decently—you'll be able to get more out of them; and he acts on his belief. Politeness is an obsession with him, and he has well earned his nickname of "Soapy Joe." He's far from perfect, but I have known him now for many years, and I don't wish for a better friend.

    But I have to admit that he's not very brilliant: in fact, many people call him dull. And here I'll let you into secret history. Anyone about to perpetrate a detective novel must first decide whether his detective is to be brilliant and a "character," or a mere ordinary humdrum personality. When French came into being there seemed two good reasons for making him the second of these. One was that it represented a new departure; there were already plenty of "character" detectives, the lineal descendants, most of them, of the great Sherlock. The other reason was much more important. Striking characteristics, consistently depicted, are very hard to do.

    I tried therefore to make French a perfectly ordinary man, without peculiarities or mannerisms. Of course he had to have some qualities, but they were to be the ordinary qualities of ordinary fairly successful men. He was to have thoroughness and perseverance as well as a reasonable amount of intelligence: just the qualities which make for moderate success in any walk of life.

    From this it follows that he does not leap to his conclusions by brilliant intuition. He begins a case by going and looking for information in those places in which he thinks information is most likely to be found. When he gets the information he swots over it until he grinds out some sort of theory to account for the facts. Very often this turns out to be wrong, but if so, he simply tries again till he thinks of something better.

    French I made an inspector of the Yard rather than a private detective because I hoped in this way to gain realism. But at once a horrible difficulty loomed up: I knew nothing about Scotland Yard or the C.I.D. What was to be done? The answer was simple. I built on the great rock which sustains so many of my profession: if I knew nothing of my subject, well, few of my readers would know any more.

    As a matter of fact I have found this rock not quite so steadfast as I had hoped. It has been pointed out to me that French has at times done things which would make a real inspector of the Yard shudder. He has consistently travelled first-class on railways, particularly in sleeping-cars. He has borrowed bicycles from local police-officers without paying for their hire. He has undertaken country inquiries without his attendant sergeant. And many other evil things has he done. Fortunately, now that he has become a chief-inspector he is seeing the error of at least some of his ways and being more careful to live up to his great traditions.

    French is a home bird, and nothing pleases him more than to get into his slippers before the fire and bury himself in some novel of sea adventure. He is married, but unlike Dr. Watson he is the husband of only one wife. On occasion his Emily helps him with his cases. But this is only when he is more utterly stuck than usual. Otherwise he doesn't think it decent—or perhaps worth while—to worry her with shop. I have been wondering whether he has children. It's like a dream to me that in one book children were mentioned, and that in another their existence was denied. But as I can't find either reference, I can only note the point as one to be avoided.

    French's job at the Yard is distinctly comfortable, particularly since he was made a chief-inspector. His promotion was decided on for a somewhat unusual reason. It was not because of his work or of what his superiors thought of him, but because so many people mentioned in letters that his promotion was long overdue. The customer, of course, is always right.

    Not only, indeed, is French's job at the Yard comfortable, but he enjoys very considerable advantages over his colleagues. Two in particular are so striking as to give him an almost unique position.

    The first is that he must necessarily succeed in his cases. He may become utterly discouraged and pessimistic—indeed, he does so at regular intervals. This, however, is merely a concession to the reader, who must often be feeling equally bored and wearied. But if French is discouraged it is his own fault. He knows very well—or he would know if he applied his own methods of reasoning—that he wouldn't have been put into a book if he were going to fail. Success does not come at once—the value of suspense in a book cannot be overlooked—but that it will come, and that not later than about page three hundred, he is well aware.

    His second great advantage over his colleagues really arises out of the first. It is that definitely he will find all the clues that he wants. He is bound to find them, because they have been laid down specially for that purpose, and he is led up to them in such a way that he could not avoid seeing them even if he wished to. These clues which he will find, moreover, are exactly those which lead to the solution of his problem, though naturally he does not see this at first. A decent interval always occurs between the picking up of the clue and the realization of its significance. This is necessary, as otherwise the book would run out too short.

    This plan of finding just the clues necessary to lead the investigator to the correct conclusion seems to me such an extraordinarily good way of conducting an inquiry that I offer the idea, quite freely, to the heads of Scotland Yard.

    I said that French had two advantages over his colleagues at the Yard, but really he has three. He cannot be killed. He cannot even be seriously injured. The reason, of course, is that he will be wanted for the next book. So if anyone fills the room with petrol vapour and attempts to light it, as was done at Newhaven, French will, if he thinks hard, know that either the person will not light the petrol, or that if he does it won't burn. If the criminal he is attempting to arrest withdraws the pin from a Mills's bomb he is carrying he will know, again if he thinks, that either he will be able to hold the lever down, or that the bomb will prove a dud. Of course, under such distressing circumstances he never does think, as otherwise he couldn't register the amount of terror which is the reader's right and proper due.

    I'm afraid I've talked too much about French, but it's really because I think a lot of him. However, with your permission I'll call him now. I give a shout that would wake the dead, and he appears. "Yes, what is it?" he asks. "Speak to these good folk, will you?" I say. He approaches the microphone in a hesitating way and, clearing his throat, begins deprecatingly: "Well, I'm very glad to be able to talk to all these kind friends, and to say it's a proud day in my life when——" I stop him. Goodness knows where he would otherwise get to. I ask him to tell how he solves his cases.

    This is more in his line. He gives a little laugh, and starts off in his normal voice. "Huh, yes, I can do that. The answer is that I don't—not always.

    But I'll tell you ladies and gentlemen how I make things look pretty well: I just don't mention the failures. Sir Mortimer and the boys at the Yard may know about them—as a matter of fact, they do; but you don't. That's my thoughtfulness for you, of course: I don't want to worry you with anything that's not just absolutely so." "But," I tell him, "you know you usually do succeed. They would like to hear your methods." "Well," he explains, "I have two principal ways. Either I get a good clue or I have a stroke of luck. And you may take it from me that the luck's the best way. It saves endless trouble and difficulty." The stream of his inspiration seems to come to an end, and I start him off again. "You've been in one or two tight corners," I suggest. "You might tell them, about your worst five minutes."

    He warms to it. "At the Yard we do get occasional nasty turns, but of course they're all in the day's work. Since you've asked me, I think my worst was in the case I just heard you speak of—Did you know the door wasn't shut? I mean the case in which two financiers were murdered on an abandoned yacht off Newhaven, and a lot of diamonds were missing. You may remember it. Well, a man called Nolan was my suspect, though I couldn't prove his guilt. But I thought there was just a chance that I might be able to make him commit himself. So I laid a trap for him. I pitched him a yarn that made him think he'd left a clue on his launch, in the hope that he'd try to destroy the launch and we could take him in the act.

    "The launch was lying in Newhaven Harbour, and the next night Sergeant Carter and I took cover on the wharf and settled down to watch. It was a wet night, and we got our fill of it. But it was worth it. About three in the morning we saw Nolan creeping down and slipping aboard. We followed him as close as we dared. He disappeared into the little engine-room. I crept after him to the door and peeped in. He was working with a torch, and you can imagine my feelings when I watched him take the missing diamonds from a hiding-place and put them in his pocket. This, of course, was all the proof I could have wanted. But then things grew nasty. He flooded the place with petrol and put a cannister on the floor with a clock attached. So I thought it was about time to make a move.

    "As a matter of fact, it was past the time. Before I could do anything he had flashed his torch on me, and I found myself looking into the wrong end of a pistol. He spoke quite quietly. He said he had feared a trick, but that he had gone through with the thing on chance. He said that as long as I lived he was in danger of being hanged. Therefore he was going to kill me. If he could get away afterwards himself, he would; if not, we would die together.

    "You'll understand that I could do nothing, for if I'd made a move he'd have fired, and if he'd fired, the whole place would have gone up in a sheet of flame. It was nasty, and no mistake." French pauses, and I prompt him again.

    "Tell them how you escaped." "Ah, that was where my bit of luck came in. Carter was behind me, and Nolan didn't see him. So Carter nipped on deck, lowered himself over the side, and shot Nolan through the porthole. He got him in the hand, but the flame from the gun didn't get in, so there was no fire. But Nolan was desperate, and in spite of his wound he went for me all out. I tripped over a pipe and fell with my side against the motor, I broke some ribs, but managed to hold off Nolan till Carter got back and pulled him off," "And after that you think you can be killed! French, my dear fellow, you're a humbug!"

    He grins, and indicates pointedly that he is now due at the Yard. So I have to let him go.

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Text © 1935 Freeman Wills Crofts-Allen & Unwin    Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins

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