Authors: Freeman Wills Crofts
Born in 1879, Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish engineer and one of the preeminent writers of Golden Age detective fiction. Educated in Belfast, he was apprenticed at eighteen to his uncle, who was chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. Marrying in 1912, he was to hold various positions in railway engineering before becoming Chief Assistant Engineer, and it was during an illness-induced absence from work that he wrote his first novel,
(1920), which became an international success. Considered a classic of the detective genre, it was followed by a steady production of more than thirty novels, most of which featured the meticulous Inspector French of Scotland Yard.Â An influential and key pioneer of the genre, Crofts became an early member of the legendary Detection Club in London along with Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and other established mystery writers. He also wrote numerous plays for the BBC, dozens of short stories, a number of true crime works, and a religious book. Known for tight plots and scrupulous attention to detail, his work set new standards in detective fiction plotting. In 1939, the author was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In retirement from engineering he continued to write and pursued music, carpentry, gardening and travel. He died in 1957.
FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS
THE LANGTAIL PRESS
This edition published 2011 by
The Langtail Press
Inspector French's Greatest Case Â© 1925 The Society of Authors
THE FIRM OF DUKE AND PEABODY
GATHERING THE THREADS
FRENCH TAKES A JOURNEY
THE HOTEL IN BARCELONA
CONCERNING A WEDDING
SYLVIA AND HARRINGTON
MRS. ROOT OF PITTSBURG
SOME PAIRS OF BLANKETS
A DEAL IN JEWELLERY
THE ELUSIVE MRS. X
MRS. FRENCH TAKES A NOTION
THE HOUSE IN ST. JOHN'S WOOD
A HOT SCENT
A DEAL IN STOCKS
THE S.S. “ENOCH”
FRENCH PROPOUNDS A RIDDLE
The back streets surrounding Hatton Garden, in the City of London, do not form at the best of times a cheerful or inspiring prospect. Narrow and mean, and flanked with ugly, sordid-looking buildings grimy from exposure to the smoke and fogs of the town and drab from the want of fresh paint, they can hardly fail to strike discouragement into the heart of any one eager for the uplift of our twentieth century civilisation.
But if on a day of cheerful sunshine the outlook is thus melancholy, it was vastly more so at ten o'clock on a certain dreary evening in mid-November. A watery moon, only partially visible through a damp mist, lit up pallidly the squalid, shuttered fronts of the houses. The air was cold and raw, and the pavements showed dark from a fine rain which had fallen some time earlier, but which had now ceased. Few were abroad, and no one whose business permitted it remained out of doors.
Huckley Street, one of the narrowest and least inviting in the district, was, indeed, deserted save for a single figure. Though the higher and more ethical side of civilisation was not obtrusive, it was by no means absent. The figure represented Law and Order, in short, it was that of a policeman on his beat.
Constable James Alcorn moved slowly forward, glancing mechanically but with practised eye over the shuttered windows of the shops and the closed doors of the offices and warehouses in his purview. He was not imaginative, the constable, or he would have rebelled even more strongly than he did against the weariness and monotony of his job. A dog's life, this of night patrol in the City, he thought, as he stopped at a cross roads, and looked down each one in turn of the four dingy and deserted lanes which radiated from the intersection. How deadly depressing it all was! Nothing ever doing! Nothing to give a man a chance! In the daytime it was not so bad, when the streets were alive and fellow creatures were to be seen, if not spoken to, but at night when there was no one to watch, and nothing to be done but wait endlessly for the opportunity which never came, it was a thankless task. He was fed up!
But though he didn't know it, his chance was at hand. He had passed through Charles Street and had turned into Hatton Garden itself, when suddenly a door swung open a little way down the street, and a young man ran wildly out into the night.
The door was directly under a street lamp, and Alcorn could see that the youth's features were frozen into an expression of horror and alarm. He hovered for a moment irresolute, then, seeing the constable, made for him at a run.
“Officer!” he shouted. “Come here quickly. There's something wrong!”
Alcorn, his depression gone, hurried to meet him.
“What is it?” he queried. “What's the matter?”
“Murder, I'm afraid,” the other cried. “Up in the office. Come and see.”
The door from which the young man had emerged stood open, and they hastened thither. It gave on a staircase upon which the electric light was turned on. The young man raced up and passed through a door on the first landing. Alcorn, following, found himself in an office containing three or four desks. A further door leading to an inner room stood open, and to this the young man pointed.
“In there,” he directed; “in the Chief's room.”
Here also the light was on, and as Alcorn passed in, he saw that he was indeed in the presence of tragedy, and he stood for a moment motionless, taking in his surroundings.
The room was small, but well proportioned. Near the window stood a roll-top desk of old-fashioned design. A leather-lined clients' arm-chair was close by, with behind it a well-filled bookcase. In the fireplace the remains of a fire still glowed red. A table littered with books and papers and a large Milner safe completed the furniture. The doors of this safe were open.
Alcorn mechanically noted these details, but it was not on them that his attention was first concentrated. Before the safe lay the body of a man, hunched forward in a heap, as if he had collapsed when stooping to take something out. Though the face was hidden, there was that in the attitude which left no doubt that he was dead. And the cause of death was equally obvious. On the back of the bald head, just above the fringe of white hair, was an ugly wound, as if from a blow of some blunt but heavy weapon.
With an oath, Alcorn stepped forward and touched the cheek.
“Cold,” he exclaimed. “He must have been dead some time. When did you find him?”
“Just now,” the young man answered. “I came in for a book, and found him lying there. I ran for help at once.”
The constable nodded.
“We'd best have a doctor anyway,” he decided. A telephone stood on the top of the desk, and he called up his headquarters, asking that an officer and a doctor be sent at once. Then he turned to his companion.
“Now, sir, what's all this about? Who are you, and how do you come to be here?”
The young man, though obviously agitated and ill at ease, answered collectedly enough.
“My name is Orchard, William Orchard, and I am a clerk in this officeâDuke & Peabody's, diamond merchants. As I have just said, I called in for a book I had forgotten, and I foundâwhat you see.”
“And what did you do?”
“Do? I did what any one else would have done in the same circumstances. I looked to see if Mr. Gething was dead, and when I saw he was I didn't touch the body, but ran for help. You were the first person I saw.”
“Mr. Gething?” the constable repeated sharply. “Then you know the dead man?”
“Yes. It is Mr Gething, our head clerk.”
“What about the safe? Is there anything missing from that?”
“I don't know,” the young man answered. “I believe there were a lot of diamonds in it, but I don't know what amount, and I've not looked what's there now.”
“Who would know about it?”
“I don't suppose any one but Mr. Duke, now Mr. Gething's dead. He's the chief, the only partner I've ever seen.”
Constable Alcorn paused, evidently at a loss as to his next move. Finally, following precedent, he took a somewhat dog's-eared notebook from his pocket, and with a stumpy pencil began to note the particulars he had gleaned.
“Gething, you say the dead man's name was? What was his first name?”
“Charles Gething, deceased,” the constable repeated presently, evidently reading his entry. “Yes. And his address?”
“12 Monkton Street, Fulham.”
“TwelveâMonktonâStreetâFulham. Yes. And your name is William Orchard?”
Slowly the tedious catechism proceeded. The two men formed a contrast. Alcorn calm and matter of fact, though breathing heavily from the effort of writing, was concerned only with making a satisfactory statement for his superior. His informant, on the other hand, was quivering with suppressed excitement, and acutely conscious of the silent and motionless form on the floor. Poor old Gething! A kindly old fellow, if ever there was one! It seemed a shame to let his body lie there in that shapeless heap, without showing even the respect of covering the injured head with a handkerchief. But the matter was out of his hands. The police would follow their own methods, and he, Orchard, could not interfere.
Some ten minutes passed of question, answer, and laborious calligraphy, then voices and steps were heard on the stairs, and four men entered the room.
“What's all this, Alcorn?” cried the first, a stout, clean shaven man with the obvious stamp of authority, in the same phrase that his subordinate had used to the clerk, Orchard. He had stopped just inside the door, and stood looking sharply round the room, his glance passing from the constable to the body, to the open safe, with inimical interest to the young clerk, and back again to Alcorn.
The constable stiffened to attention, and replied in a stolid, unemotional tone, as if reciting formal evidence in court.
“I was on my beat, sir, and at about ten-fifteen was just turning the corner from Charles Street into Hatton Garden, when I observed this young man,” he indicated Orchard with a gesture, “run out of the door of this house. He called me that there was something wrong up here, and I came up to see, and found that body lying as you see it. Nothing has been touched, but I have got some information here for you.” He held up the notebook.
The newcomer nodded and turned to one of his companions, a tall man with the unmistakable stamp of the medical practitioner.
“If you can satisfy yourself the man's dead, Doctor, I don't think we shall disturb the body in the meantime. It'll probably be a case for the Yard, and if so we'll leave everything for whoever they send.”
The doctor crossed the room and knelt by the remains.
“He's dead all right,” he announced, “and not so long ago either. If I could turn the body over I could tell you more about that. But I'll leave it if you like.”
“Yes, leave it for the moment, if you please. Now, Alcorn, what else do you know?”
A few seconds sufficed to put the constable's information at his superior's disposal. The latter turned to the doctor.
“There's more than murder here, Dr. Jordon, I'll be bound. That safe is the key to the affair. Thank the Lord, it'll be a job for the Yard. I shall 'phone them now, and there should be a man here in half an hour. Sorry, Doctor, but I'm afraid you'll have to wait.” He turned to Orchard. “You'll have to wait too, young man, but the Yard inspector probably won't keep you long. Now, what about this old man's family? Was he married?”