Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many contemporary readers prefer crime fiction that’s character-driven, or that at least has a strong emphasis on characters. But there are plenty of readers who like to ‘match wits’ with the author, and enjoy a plot-driven sort of whodunit. And even readers who like character-driven novels also often enjoy the challenge of putting all of the clues together. So let’s take a closer look at a whodunit sort of puzzler today, and turn the spotlight on Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask.
The story begins on the London docks, where the Bullfinch has just come in from Rouen. Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent to ensure that a valuable consignment of wine has arrived in good order. The customer is particular, and there were complaints about the last shipment, so Broughton is told to check everything very carefully.
When he arrives at the company’s warehouse, Broughton begins to look over the consignment. One of the casks seems both heavier and larger than the others, and that catches Broughton’s attention right away. Then, Broughton and one of the warehouse foremen notice something else: a pile of sawdust seeps out of the cask. That in itself isn’t so unusual, since sawdust is used to cushion the bottles of wine. What is odd, though, is that there’s also a gold coin. Then another one falls out. Before long, a pile of several have slipped out. Now Broughton directs the foreman to open the cask to see what’s in it. Inside, the two men discover the body of a woman. The police are notified, and Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate.
The first thing Burnley has to do is locate the cask, since by the time he gets to the warehouse, it’s already been claimed. After a time, he traces it to Mr. Léon Felix, who claims that it contains statuary that he ordered from Paris. When the cask is opened, Felix seems shocked to discover the body; in fact, he’s so devastated that he can’t really assist the investigation, and is sent for medical treatment.
The woman remains unidentified. But, since the cask was shipped from Paris, the belief is that she may have been French. So Burnley travels to Paris to follow up on that lead. Once there, he reunites with his friend, M. Lefarge of the Sûreté. Together they begin their investigation.
It takes a few days and some advertisement, but the woman is finally identified as Annette Boirac, wife of the managing director of a manufacturing company. Her husband claims that she left him, and there’s evidence to support his story that he wasn’t home at the time she went away. But of course, spouses are always the most likely suspects. There are other people, too, who could have killed the victim. Felix himself was involved with her, and therefore becomes a suspect. So Burnley and Lefarge have to trace the cask from its origin, and trace Annette Boirac’s movements, to find out exactly when she was killed and by whom. To do that, they have to work their way through several ‘red herrings’ and lies, and follow the complicated path the cask took. In the end, though, they discover who the murderer is.
This is very much a whodunit in the traditional style, with an emphasis on clues and the evidence of what people say (and don’t say). For example, the victim’s identity is established in part by the ‘legwork’ of two police officers who go around to the various dressmakers in Paris to find out who sold the distinctive dress the she was wearing. There are clues in shipping records, recollections of domestic staff members, and marks on a carpet, among other things. Readers who enjoy figuratively going along with the police as they follow up leads will appreciate this. Readers who like trying to deduce who the killer was before the author reveals it will also appreciate this.
Because of this focus on the plot, there is less focus on character development. We do learn a few things about some of the characters. However, this isn’t the sort of novel where we follow a police detective ‘home from the office.’ Readers who prefer to have a focus on the characters will notice this.
As each new lead comes up, Burnley, Lefarge, and their supervisors put it into the larger context of the crime. So there is quite a bit of discussion about what the leads mean, where that leaves the investigation, and so on. Readers who are accustomed to fast-paced novels and ‘lone wolf’ investigators will notice this. Readers who prefer novels where different branches and forces of the police work together will appreciate the fact that the members of Scotland Yard and the Sûreté cooperate, share information and so on. In fact, Burnley and Lefarge are good friends, and there’s no sense of the ‘patch wars’ that are sometimes present in modern police procedurals.
The pace of the novel reflects the fact that this is much more like a police procedural than it is a contemporary thriller. On the one hand, this means that readers who prefer a fact pace and a thriller-like sort of suspense will notice that this story isn’t like that. On the other, the pace does allow the reader to follow along as Burnley and Lefarge make sense of the information they get, and put it into perspective.
The novel takes place both in London and Paris. The two detectives do a great deal of following leads, checking alibis and statements, and interviewing witnesses and suspects in both places. So there is a solid sense of place and context of both cities.
We learn the truth about the murder of Annette Boirac, and we learn who is guilty and why. But, in the tradition of many classic and Golden Age novels (this one was published in 1920), that doesn’t mean that we see the murderer led away in handcuffs. We do, however, get a complete explanation of exactly how the crime was committed, how the ‘red herrings’ were used, and so on.
The Cask is a classic-style whodunit with the real emphasis on the gathering of clues, the testing of alibis and statements, and the following up of leads. It features two detectives from different countries who work together to solve the case, and a criminal who’s taken pains not to get caught. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cask? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 2 May/Tuesday, 3 May – Nefarious Doings – Ilsa Evans
Monday, 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Three Little Pigs – Apostolos Doxiadis
Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Terror in Taffeta – Marla Cooper