The British interwar period is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of British crime fiction. Some of the authors of this period, most notably Agatha Christie, remain popular. Many others have sunk to relative obscurity, although in recent years publishers are re-issuing works that have previously fallen out of print. Irish author Freeman Wills Crofts is one of the crime writers who had a successful career during the interwar period, but who is less of a household name today.
Crofts was a prolific writer, producing 34 novels, 3 short story collections and a handful of plays and works of non-fiction. Like many other writers of his generation, he created a crime-solving protagonist whom he could use for multiple books: Inspector French of Scotland Yard CID. French first appeared in the 1924 novel Inspector French’s Greatest Case. Five years later, Crofts wrote Inspector French and the Box Office Murders, which we’ll explore here.
In this book, Inspector French is called upon for help by a cinema box office attendant, Thurza Darke, who believes one of her colleagues at another cinema was murdered. The book’s opening chapter, in which French interviews Darke, immediately gives insight in what was considered a typical set of circumstances for cinema box office staff. It is certainly true that the box office was usually staffed exclusively by women, in contrast to other parts of the cinema. Film historian Ina Rae Hark has persuasively argued that this is due to the cashier’s role to draw in patrons – in many cinemas, particularly in the US, the ticket seller would be enclosed in the glass box of the ticket office, which was often out on the pavement or immediately adjacent to it.
In The Box Office Murders, Thurza is described as:
a pretty blonde of about five-and-twenty, with a good manner and something of a presence. Well but plainly dressed in some light summery material, she looked what she evidently was, an ordinary, pleasant, healthy young woman of the lower middle classes.
We then find out Thurza is an orphan from Birkenhead; lives in a boarding house in Clapham; is good friends with a fellow boarder who works as a typist for a lawyer; travels to work by Tube; and attends evening arithmetic classes, where she met the box office girl who since got murdered. In a few short pages Crofts presents the reader with the outline of the typical life of a young woman working in the city and looking to better herself – although Thurza’s lack of family is undoubtedly added to avoid French having to deal with noisy family members when Thurza later gets murdered.
As French finds out, a criminal gang is operating in London who first get cinema box office girls in debt, and then get them to use the cinema box office takings to launder stolen money. Cinema box offices were considered vulnerable to theft. Contemporary cinema manager’s guide and industry publications often stressed that staff could be tempted to steal from the till, and suggested tactics to minimise this risk. For example, box office staff should not be encouraged to mix too much with other staff in the cinema, lest the (male) attendants could convince the female box office attendant to dip her hand in the till.
After Thurza is killed by the gang, French recruits yet another box office attendant, Molly Moran, to help him entrap the gang members. French has identified that Molly has already fallen into the gang’s clutches. Before he approaches her directly, he first speaks to her manager as well as the managers of some other potential victims:
But as he had foreseen, the managers were not helpful. None of them had noticed anything abnormal or suspicious in the conduct of the girl in his company’s employment nor had there been any irregularity about her cash.
Each of the girls lives in a boarding house, like Thurza Darke. When French goes to speak to the landladies, they have noticed that the girls were in ‘evident trouble’, but they did not know what it was: they ‘did not think it was financial (…) none of the girls had shown a difficulty in meeting her bill’. The picture Crofts paints is one of a mass of young women who live in the city on their own; have no-one to look out for their best interests; and are vulnerable to exploitation and attack. Their relationships at work are surface-level and transactional: as long as the tills check out, their managers are not concerned. At home, they live with strangers, and the relationship is again primarily based on a financial transaction: if they can meet their rent, the landladies aren’t concerned either.
What underpins Inspector French and the Box Office Murders, then, is a discomfort with the independent lives young women were living in interwar London. Crofts, through French, primarily frames this independence as a vulnerability. The implication is that girls who lived at home with their parents, and who had people (men) to look out for their safety, would be better off.
This theme comes across particularly strongly at the end of the novel, when Molly Moran ends up kidnapped by the gang and French has to save her. Molly, who was introduced as having ‘a stubborn little chin [which] showed she had no lack of character’, by the end of the book is longingly waiting for French to save her. When he does, and kisses her on the mouth in relief of finding her alive, she ‘instead of indignantly protesting against his conduct and demanding a commission of inquiry into the whole circumstances, smiled up into his face’. It is all well and good for girls to be stubborn as long as they do not use their character to interfere with maverick police inspectors.
Inspector French and the Box Office Murders gives an insight into the anxieties that were provoked by one of the country’s most popular leisure activities depending on young women living and working independently. The book reveals the assumptions made about the type of woman who worked at the cinema box office. Whilst the criminal plot is fantastical, the concerns about young women challenging social norms were all too real.
Inspector French and the Box Office Murders and other Freeman Wills Crofts novels can be purchased in a variety of formats.
 Ina Rae Hark, ‘The “Theatre Man” and “The Girl in the Box Office”, in Film Exhibition Reader, ed. by Ina Rae Hark (2002), pp. 143-159 (p. 148)
 Freeman Wills Crofts, Inspector French and the Box Office Murders, (London: HarperCollins, 2017), p. 2
 JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager, (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), pp.86-87
 Crofts, Box Office Murders, p. 99
 Ibid., p. 100
 Ibid., p. 208
 Ibid., p. 228