Saturday, September 03, 2011

What did Inspector French eat?

Freeman Wills Crofts is the creator of Scotland Yard Inspector French, who appears in a number of novels. I heard of his novels in an article by W.H.Auden, published in Harpers in 1948: "The guilty vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict" It's a wonderful study of detective fiction, which presents Auden's ideas on the appeal of murder mysteries as well as analysis of their principal "five elements–-the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives."

Auden says "Completely satisfactory detectives are extremely rare. Indeed, I only know of three: Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), and Father Brown (Chesterton)." I have read all of Sherlock Holmes, and sampled Father Brown. However, Crofts' Inspector French novels, published between 1920 and 1957, were entirely new to me. I was delighted at the possibility of discovering a new detective author, and quickly purchased Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy for my Kindle.

French is an extremely intense detective, and there are virtually no passages in the novel that don't directly advance the plot and help him solve the diabolical crime, which is initially so clever that it appears to be an accident. I completely agree with Auden that this is an author worth reading, though there are aspects of the work that are somewhat dated.

Of course as I read I was looking for the theme I always check in detective fiction: how does the author use food in his narrative? Unlike some of my favorites, Crofts offers no description of what Inspector French eats of of who cooks it for him. This is consistent with the intensity of the narrative. Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy has nothing more detailed than "after breakfast he stood in the hotel coffee room" (p. 72), or "starting out with a stick in his hand and a packet of sandwiches in his pocket" (p. 99), or "at the hotel he dined, and ... asked for a packet of sandwiches" (p. 157) True to the detective writers' commitment that no detail can be left without follow-up, when French takes sandwiches with him you usually hear about when he ate them: "In the small hours he ate his sandwiches, and then he had to fight an overwhelming desire for sleep." (p. 158)

I find it interesting that despite the seeming lack of interest in the details of what French ate, the author uses these meals and snacks just the way that other authors do: to punctuate the days of detecting and contribute to the reader's sense of time passing. Perhaps there is more expansive food description in later books, but that would represent a change in this intensity.

I found Auden's description of Inspector French especially interesting. Auden says:
"His class and culture are the natural ones for a Scotland Yard inspector. (The old Oxonian Inspector is insufferable.) His motive is love of duty. Holmes detects for his own sake and shows the maximum indifference to all feelings except a negative fear of his own. French detects for the sake of the innocent members of society, and is indifferent only to his own feelings and those of the murderer. ... He is exceptional only in his exceptional love of duty which makes him take exceptional pains; he does only what all could do as well if they had the same patient industry (his checking of alibis for tiny flaws which careless hurry had missed). He outwits the murderer, partly because the latter is not quite so painstaking as he, and partly because the murderer must act alone, while he has the help of all the innocent people in the world who are doing their duty (e.g., the post- men, railway clerks, milkmen, etc., who become, accidentally, witnesses to the truth)."
Note: to see all my posts on the topic, click on the label "Food in Detective Fiction" at the bottom of this post.

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