Crofts, Freeman Wills
- Robin Woolven
Crofts, Freeman Wills (1879–1957), railway engineer and writer of detective stories, was born at 26 Waterloo Road, Dublin, on 1 June 1879, the son of Freeman Wills Crofts, a surgeon-lieutenant in the Army Medical Service, who died before his son's birth, and his wife, Celia Frances Wise. Both parents were of Irish protestant descent from the Cork area. When young Freeman was aged three his mother married Jonathan Harding, Church of Ireland vicar of Gilford, co. Down (1865–1900), and archdeacon of Dromore. Brought up in his stepfather's Ulster vicarage, Crofts attended the Methodist College in Belfast (1891–4), then completed his education at Campbell College in that city. In 1896 he was apprenticed to his uncle, Berkeley Deane Wise, who was then chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. In 1899 Crofts was appointed assistant engineer constructing the Londonderry and Strabane Railway, and in 1900 he became district engineer of the Coleraine, Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. He became chief assistant engineer of his company, now the LMS Northern Counties Committee, in 1923.
A keen amateur musician, Crofts was a church organist and choirmaster at Coleraine parish church and later at St Patrick's, Jordanstown. On 12 September 1912 he married Mary Bellas (1876–1964), daughter of John J. C. Canning of Coleraine, a bank manager. There were no children of the marriage.
In 1919 Crofts suffered a severe illness and, encouraged by his doctor, Adam Mathers, he occupied his time writing a book subsequently published as The Cask (1920). Set in Edwardian London and Paris, this detective story soon became a classic of the genre and 'a milestone in the history of the detective novel' (Binyon, 82). Encouraged by his agent he continued writing detective stories, producing a book nearly every year for the next three decades. His fifth book, Inspector French's Greatest Case (1925), introduced that portly, dour, but methodical and meticulous Scotland Yard detective who was to feature in most of his later books, plays, and short stories. In 1931 a critic wrote that 'The alibi was Crofts's first love and the pivot of his plots … [he] exploited to the full his knowledge of the railways and found in Bradshaw a vade mecum' (Thomson). Julian Symons saw him as of 'the humdrum school' but Raymond Chandler admired him as 'the soundest builder of them all' (Barnes, 270–71). Crofts's carefully constructed alibis for the murderers (often involving railway timetables) could be demolished only by French's careful attention to detail, and such was his reputation for breaking apparently unbreakable alibis that French was included with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's parody of 'the great detectives', Partners in Crime (1929). The strain of producing an annual novel while following his engineering profession affected Crofts's health, so he resigned his railway career in 1929 and moved to the quiet village of Blackheath, near Guildford, in Surrey, to write full time.
Crofts was recalled to Ulster in 1930 when the government of Northern Ireland appointed him to inquire into the 'objections lodged against the draft scheme for the drainage of the River Bann and Lough Neagh'. He reported within a month, finding 'nothing which could not be met by compensation or slight modification of detail'. 1930 also saw the publication of Sir John Magill's Last Journey, set in Ulster as was the dénouement of his ingenious Fatal Venture (1939). Following his move to Surrey, Crofts generally used locations in the home counties, visiting local scenes with notebook and camera to aid authenticity—the victim of The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) was buried in the cutting of the new main road through that feature just outside Guildford. Several other novels were set near his Blackheath cottage.
By 1930 Crofts was, with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, an active member of the Detection Club. They funded their Gerrard Street premises, and their formal dinners, by publishing stories with the chapters serially written by the members. Crofts contributed to the club's The Floating Admiral (1931) and Double Death (1939); his account of the 1933 Lakey murder case as 'A New Zealand tragedy' formed a part of the club's non-fiction collection The Anatomy of Murder (1936). He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1939 and in that year he wrote in support of Moral Re-Armament (Guildford City Outlook, February 1939).
Crofts continued his annual Inspector French books through the Second World War, his villains often now working for the enemy cause or the settings being wartime England. Most of his books were also published in the United States, occasionally with their titles slightly modified for the American market. Translations appeared in ten languages, including two, The Cask and Sir John Magill's Last Journey, into Gaelic and Death of a Train into Esperanto. His short stories in Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) were the twenty-three plays that had originally been broadcast in 1943–5 by the BBC Home Service in 30 minute episodes as Chief Inspector French's Cases while Many a Slip (1955) contained fuller versions of the twenty-one Inspector French stories that had appeared in the Evening Standard. Crofts also wrote one story, Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947), for children and a single religious volume, The four gospels in one story, written as a modern biography with difficult passages clarified and explanatory notes (1949). His more successful books went into numerous reprints, fifteen titles being issued in the ‘green’ Penguin Crime series (1945–59). His books show a cohesion and continuity as Inspector French frequently refers to his previous cases and some of the police officers reappear.
In 1953 Crofts and his wife moved to the Sussex coast at Worthing. His final book, Anything to Declare?, featuring the now Chief Superintendent French, appeared in 1957. Crofts died of bowel cancer at a nursing home, 2 Farncombe Road, Worthing, Sussex, on 11 April 1957. His popularity with readers of the golden age of English detective fiction is occasionally revived and, in 2000, all thirty-six of his classic works were reprinted in paperback.
- M. Barnes, Twentieth-century crime and mystery writers, ed. L. Henderson, 3rd edn (1991), 270–71
- T. J. Binyon, ‘Murder will out’: the detective in fiction (1989), 82
- H. Haycraft, Murder for pleasure: the life and times of the detective story (1941)
- H. R. F. Keating, Whodunit? A guide to crime, suspense, and spy fiction (1982)
- H. R. F. Keating, The bedside companion to crime (1989)
- b. cert.
- d. cert.
- WW (1940–57)
- Irish Book Lover, 18 (1930), 132
- H. D. Thomson, Masters of mystery: a study of the detective story (1931)
- J. Symons, Bloody murder: from the detective story to the crime novel, a history (1984)
- J. Cooper and B. Pike, Detective fiction: the collector's guide (1994)
- The Times (13 April 1957)
- ILN (27 April 1957)
- Belfast Telegraph (17 Feb 1941)
- Belfast News-Letter (11 Aug 1953) [in press cuttings bks in Belfast City Library]
- B. Benstock and T. F. Staley, eds., British mystery writers, 1920–1939, DLitB, 77 (1989)
- m. cert.
- BL, corresp. of Crofts and his executors with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56685
Wealth at Death
£21,737 19s. 6d.: probate, 16 Aug 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales