By Thomas F. Schwartz
Two English mystery writers whose works were on the shelves at Camp Rapidan were Robin Forsythe and Freeman Wills Crofts. Both were born in 1879, Forsythe in Punjab, British India now Pakistan and Crofts in Dublin, Ireland. Both were popular during the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, roughly the two decades of 1920 and 1930.
Crofts never knew his father who served as a surgeon in the Army Medical Service and died of fever while serving abroad. His mother remarried a vicar and Crofts was sent to college, married, and worked on the construction of the Donegal Railway. His writing career began during a long recovery from illness, resulting in his first mystery novel, The Cask (1920). He eventually left his career as a railway engineer devoting himself entirely to writing mystery novels. A member of the Detection Club, Crofts was esteemed by members of the guild such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. But he also had critics who described Crofts as a member of “the humdrum school,” a reference to an overemphasis on plot and not character development. This is often the explanation for Croft’s lack of notoriety with modern audiences.
Mystery in the Channel (1931) was the eleventh mystery novel of several dozen Crofts published. The mystery begins by the discovery of a yacht drifting aimlessly midway in the English Channel. The crew of the steamer Chichester investigate only to find two men dead in pools of blood from bullet wounds. The captain of the Chichester reports his findings to the authorities who are baffled and call in Inspector Joseph French to assist in the investigation. Crofts introduced the character of Inspector French in seven previous mysteries. Unlike Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, French remains devoid of eccentricities or memorable character traits but is systematic in tracking down clues and eliminating suspects. The dead men on the yacht were partners in Moxon General Securities, one of the largest financial firms. The men were on their way to France to conclude a major transaction. As French digs deeper into Moxon General Securities, he discovers it was losing money and large amounts of funds were withdrawn. But no money was found on the yacht and the remaining staff at Moxon seemed to have plausible alibis until French discovers the truth.
Like Crofts, Robin Forsythe was the son of a Scottish officer in the Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers stationed in India. His mother died soon after delivering his younger brother and both were raised by an ayah or Indian nanny. Eventually his father returned to Scotland where Forsythe entered the Civil Service as a Revenue Assistant. At some point, Forsythe developed a system to defraud the government of funds, redirecting it to himself and three companions in crime. Caught in an undercover operation by Scotland Yard, Forsythe pleaded guilty and began serving a prison term. The sentencing judge, ironically, was a son of famed English novelist Charles Dickens. In prison, Forsythe began writing on what became his first mystery novel, Missing or Murdered (1929).
The plot begins with the mysterious disappearance of Lord Bygrave who worked at an unnamed Ministry of the British Government. He had planned a few weeks on holiday in the country but disappeared shortly after arriving at the inn. Was he dead or simply missing? Lord Bygrave’s friend and executor, Anthony “Algernon” Vereker decides to assist Scotland Yard in solving the mystery of Bygrave’s disappearance. An artist by profession, Vereker’s meandering but steel-trap mind is at odds with Scotland Yard’s more methodical deliberations. This would be the first of four more mystery novels featuring Vereker as the main character.
Perhaps the plot element of financial misappropriation reminded Herbert Hoover of his own experience in dealing with a colleague, A. Stanley Rowe, who stole 55,000 pounds from Bewick, Moreing and Company. Hoover and the partners at Bewick, Moreing and Company had to cover Rowe’s theft to keep shareholders happy. Forsythe’s description of government bureaucrats certainly resonated with Hoover. In Missing or Murdered, Forsythe describes Inspector Heather’s observation of a ministry official: “His opinion of Mr. Grierson was that he was simply a Government official—a man who is very highly paid for doing very little work. It was unusual of Inspector Heather to make hasty assumptions of this type, but then his mind was working under the compelling influence of a great British tradition—the legend that no work has been or is ever done by a civil servant.”
Hoover headed the first Hoover Commission, tasked to investigate, and provide recommendations to reorganize the executive branch of the federal government to provide savings and produce greater efficiencies. The commission produced seven thick tomes of findings. When a reporter asked the basic question of how many people worked in the federal government, Hoover quipped, “About half.”