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the cask

1 july 2020

The Cask opens, a century ago, with a sharp-eyed shipping clerk named Broughton inspecting wine casks on the wharves of London. He finds one that contains, not wine, but sawdust, gold coins, and a dead body. Naturally the first thought of our able young clerk is "to report the matter to his managing director" (Chapter 1). Because, whatever about murder and all that, a chap's first responsibility is to The Firm.

Fortunately Director Avery takes the case straight to Scotland Yard, or we'd be dealing with a noir, not a 1920 detective novel by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts' intricately plotted puzzle-mysteries reveal an epistemology that has survived to help create 21st-century surveillance culture and its potential for totalized policing. In Crofts' imaginary London, a century ago, a couple of fellows nobody's seen before can disappear from the docklands with a stray cask in their possession – and within hours, His Majesty's panoptic forces can track them unerringly to earth using all sorts of telemetry: vigilant beat cops, anthropometrists, clock-and-timetable experts, inferential investigators whose reconstructive powers would shame Sherlock Holmes, and a relentless shared culture of deduction.

Finding the cask after it initially goes missing is thus no problem for Burnley of the Yard, but what to do once they've found it? The deceased (young, beautiful) woman has been shipped over from France for reasons none of the suspects can explain, so Burnley himself has to travel to Paris armed with little more than a few verbal descriptions and some Anglo-Saxon optimism. When he gets to Paris, with the help of his Sûreté colleague Lafarge, Burnley narrows the field to two main possibilities: the woman's husband, Boirac; and her lover, Felix. (Both detectives are sure that the butler couldn't have done it: even in 1920 that was too much of a cliché.)

Husband or lover? Either one might have strangled Annette in a crime of passion. Since motive doesn't tip the scale, our heroes go back to the railway and shipping timetables to pay extra special attention to the movements of the cask itself. The title totem has since morphed into three casks, plying the rails and the English Channel in a sinister shell game where the object is to conceal a voluptuous corpse.

Felix, the lover, is indicted for murder. Burnley and Lafarge yield the narrative at this point to a bilingual English detective named La Touche, who is hired by Felix's solicitor. La Touche combs and recombs the Continent to find holes in the work the policemen already did. If this kind of procedural sounds fanatically unreadable, I can't argue; though in its weird compulsive way, Crofts' novel builds energy, especially as La Touche retraces everybody else's steps. Before long, you don't care who did the murder or why; you just want to know how these pencil-pushers are going to run the killer to ground. The Cask is a novel you read somewhat "diagonally." You assume you will get full recaps of the precious railway data in each new chapter, as the sleuths make incremental progress toward their solution.

Another virtue of The Cask is its meticulous tale of two cities. Grounded by COVID-19 and unable to get to London, Paris (or even Dallas) this summer, I was able to walk the streets of the English and French capitals with Crofts' detectives in excessive detail, and it was a comforting vicarious exercise.

The Cask was the first of Crofts' mystery novels, written when he was still in the middle of his civil-service career running Ulster railroads. The other one I've read, The Cheyne Mystery, written six years later, shares devices with The Cask but is a much brisker novel with more human interest. I assume from his popularity and standing among his colleagues (which were considerable) that Crofts' later productions were more like The Cheyne Mystery than The Cask.

Crofts, Freeman Wills. The Cask. 1920. London: The Crime Club, 1938. Kindle Edition, Project Gutenberg.