In The Spotlight: Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask

>In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de LanceHello, All,

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


Filed under Freeman Wills Crofts, The Cask

34 responses to “In The Spotlight: Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask

  1. This sounds like a terrific story Margot. I checked my local library & they only have a reference copy that cannot be taken out. Will have to scour local book stores…….fingers crossed 😀

    • Thank you, Anne. I hope you find it. FYI, my copy is a Kindle copy, so I know it’s available that way (or should be!) if you have an e-reader.

      • Yes i do but never use it. For some reason i have a problem reading e-books. I find it very difficult to concentrate, unlike reading a reg book where it’s very easy to get into the story. Also the lighting on the app bothers me. Will hopefully find an old reprint….

  2. This does sound good Margot, especially, as you point out for those who like to solve the mystery (something I am exceptionally bad at but like the opportunity)

    • It is really enjoyable sometimes to just match wits with the author and try to work out what happened, how and why, isn’t it, Cleo? And this is one of those stories where you can do that. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. Tim

    Thank you, Margot, for another first-rate review/posting. I am a huge fan of the Golden Age, and I think I might have read some things by Croft long, long ago; my memory, however, fails me. Now, though, I hope to find a copy of The Cask to read in my iPad Kindle app.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tim. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Crofts’ work certainly reflects the classic/Golden Age era during which he wrote. If you do get a chance to read The Cask, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. I’ve had this on the TBR for so long Margot – really looking forward to it now, thanks 🙂

  5. Like Tim, I think I read a fair amount of Freeman Wills Croft way back in my teens, but don’t remember any of the specific stories. I’ve actually been expecting him to turn up in some of these classic anthologies I’ve been reading recently, but surprisingly I don’t think he has. It may be time to revisit him…

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, FictionFan, how we don’t see as much of Crofts as we do of some other classic/Golden Age authors. And yet, he’s done some, well, classic classic stories. If you do give one of these novels a try, I hope you’ll enjoy it (or enjoy it again).

  6. Crofts was an important literary figure – in fact, our friend, mystery historian Curtis Evans, refers to The Cask as “having launched in full force the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” Crofts was indeed the master of the “timetable mystery,” where the eventual solution may hinge on something like a train’s time schedule. Crofts’s primary detective was Sgt. French, but The Cask came first. I’m pretty sure we’ll see more of these books being republished. As you say, they’re primarily puzzle mysteries – but they’re very good ones!

    • Oh, they really are, Les. And you’re right, of course, about Crofts’ place in crime fiction history. Certainly he was a master, as you say, of crime-fictional timing, as it were. And The Cask reflects that skill that focus on exactly when things happen in a story.

  7. mudpuddle

    i’ve never been very good at getting the answer before the detective, but i like reading about someone else doing it. i’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of FWC’s books and French i regard as a close personal friend. he and i have solved many problems, enjoyably, and, i hope, will into the future. unless the availability and the price go up too much more…

    • That’s one of the marks of a talented writer, Mudpuddle. When readers feel as though the sleuth is a personal friend, then you know the author has created a strong character.I’m glad you’ve enjoyed Crofts’ work.

  8. ID’ed via a distinctive dress? Mmm, sounds like one for me. I have a book by him on the pile, so I should read that one and move onto this…

    • I think you might like this one, Moira. In fact, I thought of you when that bit about the dress came up. Oh, and I can say without spoiling the novel that a hatpin and a brooch also provide clues… If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope you’ll like it.

  9. This sounds like an intriguing whodunit and a book that would be right up my alley of reading, Thanks for sharing, Margot.

  10. Interesting observation on the pace of the novel, Margot. I have read novels where the narrative is not fast-paced as in a thriller and yet it is good enough to keep me engaged till the end. I’ll put it this way: something is happening all the time.

    • I think that’s a very effective way to put it, Prashant. This novel doesn’t, as you say, have a thriller-like pace. But things do happen. There’s conversation, there’s looking at clues, there some internal speculation, and so on. And the puzzle is, in my opinion, an interesting one.

  11. I am quite sure I read a book or two of his but this isn’t ringing any bells.

  12. I haven’t. I’m more a contemporary gal. That said, I was intrigued by this spotlight. I’m dying to know what those gold coins mean. Adding it to the list. Thanks, Margot!

  13. I’m a big fan of Freeman Wills Croft (or was a long time ago) and I’ve recently been trying to re-read what books of his I can find. Lots of them are on Kindle now, but I prefer to get my hands on the actual book if I can find it. I don’t remember having read this one, but that doesn’t mean much – my memory being what it is. (I also enjoy listening to the audio versions, so I’ll check into that as well.)

    But this definitely sounds like one I’ll be getting hold of. For sure. I find police procedurals very relaxing. 🙂

  14. I read THE CASK decades ago when DOVER Books published a wonderful edition with an Introduction I still remember to this day.

  15. This is an author I have never read. Maybe this will be the book I try.

    • It’s an excellent example, I think, of the classic/Golden Age ‘whodunit,’ with lots of alibis, lies, schedules, ‘red herrings,’ and so on, Tracy. Hope you’ll enjoy it if you do try it.

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