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the cheyne mystery

17 december 2019

Freeman Wills Crofts, who had way too many surnames if you ask me, was an early-20th- century Irish railway official. He saw to the efficient running of trains in Ulster, and wrote mystery novels on the side. By the time Crofts was fifty, he was doing well enough out of the mystery novels that he could pack in his railway duties and concentrate on fictional sleuthing. Just before his retirement from the rails, he published The Cheyne Mystery (1926), which is not only still in print but has a new edition out from Collins Crime Club this fall. I ran across a much earlier printing of The Cheyne Mystery in a rural Texas bookstore recently, and devoured it in a few days.

The Cheyne Mystery is certainly a "clinking tale," to use one of Crofts' own expressions. It is a hybrid between early police procedurals, private-eye novels, and stories of intrigue like John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps or Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands – the latter of which Crofts invokes at one point, approvingly. Ninety-odd years have passed; The Cheyne Mystery was published the year Queen Elizabeth II was born. It now seems an odd mix of puzzles, outlandish situations, and characters whose only appeal lies in their spirited inconsistency.

Our hero is Maxwell Cheyne: gentleman, author, amateur sailor, and clearly the "wrong man" of this thriller. Cheyne is minding his business one day when a new acquaintance slips him a mickey. Neither robbed nor compromised, Cheyne can't imagine why he's been put to sleep. When he learns that his house has been rifled during his involuntary nap, things might make sense – but the burglars took nothing there, either. Finally the desperados kidnap Cheyne, and spin a tale about a claim to a noble title that Cheyne can somehow clarify. But every word the gang utters is a lie. Cheyne tries to match wits with these con men, and soon acquires a sidekick in the fetching artist Joan Merrill.

A private detective named Speedwell, and a police inspector named French (who features in several of Crofts' novels) counterpose their deductive skills to those of the Cheyne/Merrill team. One of the signature moments of The Cheyne Mystery is French's piecing-together of the movements of the drugging burglar-kidnappers. French has nothing to go on but a scrap of a hotel bill and a list of peculiar items. One of the entries on the list is The Forsyte Saga, and French concludes that the gang is planning a long sea journey. This is not psychic stuff; it's just that the only reason to read The Forsyte Saga, in French's view, is if you're confined to a ship's cabin for a month of two. French proceeds to work out that the gang must be leaving from a hotel in a port city on the Continent, and he sets off for Bruges – with a list of tourist sights as backup in case his deductions fail.

Scotland Yard, as so often in fiction, seems to have an unlimited budget and no pressing prior engagements. Cheyne no sooner knocks on French's office door with some malarkey about a drugging, a non-burglary, and a girlfriend who hasn't returned one of his calls, than all the resources of the Home Office are thrown into sending French on a mini-Grand-Tour of cross-channel watering spots. So, the novel has its strengths and weaknesses. If you are hung up on plausibility … well, you probably wouldn't have finished reading this review, let alone be considering picking up The Cheyne Mystery, right?

Crofts, Freeman Wills. The Cheyne Mystery. 1926. New York: Penguin, 1978.