Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Free me before I lose the Will to live and run away to live on a Croft

Did you crack the code?

I'm sorry and I know we all owe respect to the writers who formed our genre and carved out a home for it in the literary landscape. I especially owe a debt to golden-age authors who give readers an appetite for exactly the kind of puzzle-plot books I write (some of the time).


The works of Freeman Wills Croft make me want to weep. He never researched a train (or a timetable for a train) that he didn't share with his readers. To be fair, he was a railway engineer. He also loved a code. And he truly is the man who put the procedure into police procedurals.

It's hard to describe to US readers why it's funny that he lived in Guildford and then retired to Worthing. But it's a bit like saying someone lived in Chesapeake for a while until they fled the razzamatazz.

Long story short: he's not that gonzo. However, if you enjoy a meticulous depiction of the method an inspector would use to prove beyond doubt that the most likely suspect is indeed guilty, then he might be just your cup of tea.

There is another golden-age writer who has also used timetable alibis, secret codes, and painstaking detail and yet I adore her. But she's Dorothy L Sayers so, as well as the procedure, she has wit, passion, lovable/loathable characters, and a twist to everything she writes. When it comes to twists, I suspect FWC employs a plumb-line.

And when DLS gets the bug for a particular subject  - landscape painting, campanology, the advertising business - as the backdrop to a story, she brings it alive in a way that FWC never has (for me).

But then I've had conversations about DLS with friends who rend their garments and gnash their teeth about "all the bell-ringing", and "a hundred and fifty thousand colours of oil-paint" and "seventeen pages of decrypting a substitution code".

They were both members of the Detection Club Cathy talked about yesterday. In my imagination, FWC was in charge of the pencils and had a protocol to ensure regular sharperning. DLS was in charge of whisky and pranks.

I'll close by apologising to any FWC fans who might read this. And I'll offer up my devotion to O.Douglas - John Buchan's sister - who wrote novels with all the quiet calm of an FWC book and no plots to speak of at all. There's truly no accounting for taste.


Susan C Shea said...

Love that last cover, the O. Douglas book. Beautiful art, so much so that I would have it in my library even if the story bored me to tears.

Cathy Ace said...

Got to admit I agree with Susan...cover art means I have a few books on my shelves that wouldn't be there. But, Catriona, the train timetables? Oh yes. Makes me think of "The Californians" on SNL. :-)