Freeman Wills Crofts today is not one of the more famous writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, he was a prominent and early member of the Detection Club, a select circle of crime authors that included Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and others. T.S Eliot rated Crofts as ‘the finest detective story writer to have emerged during the Twenties.’[1] An engineer by training, Crofts’ detective stories often include modes of transport which he describes in exact detail. In Mystery in the Channel, published in 1931, two dead bodies are found on a yacht in the English Channel. The eventual unravelling of the case by Crofts’ regular police protagonist, Inspector French, hinges on the exact timings several vessels embarked on their journey, their relative speeds, and the weather conditions.

The title of Inspector French’s 1934 outing, The 12.30 from Croydon, would have immediately communicated to a contemporary audience that airplanes, not boats, were the mode of transport under scrutiny this time. Like Christie’s more famous Death in the Clouds, published the following year, Crofts’ murder victim dies whilst up in the air.

The 12.30 from Croydon opens with a delightful chapter told from the perspective of the murder victim’s ten-year-old granddaughter Ruby, who is terribly excited that she will be flying for the first time. Ruby, her father Peter, her grandfather Andrew, and Andrew’s butler Weatherup are all due to fly to Paris because Ruby’s mother Elsie has been in a traffic accident in the French capital. Crofts’ engineer’s eye for detail is evident in this opening chapter, which describes the Imperial Airways plane the family board:

It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and each with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST.’[2]

‘Hengist’ was the colloquial name for a real Imperial Airways plane which until 1934 (the year of the book’s publication) flew on the European routes. It was subsequently converted to fly long-distance and as far as Australia, until the plane was destroyed in an accident in 1937. Once up in the air, Ruby and her family are served a ‘four-course lunch followed by coffee, all very nice and comfortably served’.[3] When they land, disaster strikes: Andrew Crowther, Ruby’s grandfather, is found unresponsive and declared dead.

A contemporary photo of the real Hengist plane standing outside Croydon Aerodrome, taken from A Million Miles in the Air,
the memoirs of pilot Gordon P. Olley, published in 1934

After the murder in the opening chapter, Wills Crofts shifts perspective and takes the reader back in time. The 12.30 from Croydon is a ‘psychological crime novel’ – rather than the reader trying to work out who has committed the murder and how, the author takes the reader into the mind of the murderer as he plots out his murder and attempts to escape justice. Andrew Crowther’s murderer, as it turns out, is his nephew Charles Swinburn. Charles is the managing director of the Crowther Electromotor Works, a firm originally set up by Andrew and his business partner Henry Swinburn. Although modest in size, the firm had been flourishing under Andrew’s leadership.

By the early 1930s, however, Charles is finding it impossible to stay afloat in the challenging economic environment following the 1929 Wall Street crash. Having already sunk his personal capital and a bank loan into the business, Charles approaches his uncle for financial help. Andrew, however, is not willing to give more than £1000, when Charles needs at least £6000. Knowing that he is one of the two heirs to Andrew’s estate (alongside Andrew’s daughter Elsie), Charles devises his plan to kill Andrew.

Charles method for murdering Andrew is one also used on occasion in other crime novels of the period. Andrew takes a ‘patent medicine’ against indigestion after lunch each day. Patent medicine were mass-produced pills designed to remedy common ills. Unlike more traditional medicine which was prescribed by a doctor and then mixed up to order by a pharmacist, patent medicines were available in standardized bottles and could be purchased without a doctor’s prescription.

In novels of the 1920s and 1930s they are often treated with disdain and considered to be inferior to the personalised prescriptions that a doctor would give out. However, their wide availability and uniform appearance also made them an ingenious murder weapon. Charles buys a bottle of pills identical to the one Andrew uses, but replaces one of the pills with a pill filled with potassium cyanide, an extremely lethal poison. Like in the Poirot short story ‘Wasps’ Nest’, Charles manages to obtain the poison with the excuse that he needs to eradicate a wasps nest from his garden. When at dinner with Andrew, Charles distracts him and swaps the pill bottles, pocketing Andrew’s bottle and replacing it with the one that contains the one deadly pill. He then books himself onto a Mediterranean cruise to be out of the way when Andrew eventually takes the poisoned pill.

Although the murder plan works and Charles duly inherits half of Andrew’s estate, Charles swiftly finds out that murderers rarely rest easily. First Weatherup reveals that he has seen Charles swap the pill bottles, and starts blackmailing him. Charles swiftly decides to kill Weatherup, too. Then Inspector French arrives and starts asking some awkward questions. The arrest, when it inevitably comes, takes Charles by surprise. It is not until the final chapter of the book that the reader is shown how Inspector French conducted his investigation, and how his powers of deduction led him to correctly identify Charles as the murder. The perfect murder plan conceived by Charles is revealed to have had some rather large holes in it.

Charles is duly condemned to death and executed. There is less moral ambiguity in The 12.30 from Croydon than, for example, Anthony Berkeley’s Malice Aforethought, or even than in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. Although Andrew Crowther is not a hugely sympathetic character, there is no doubt to the reader that Charles’ actions are wrong, and that the policing and justice systems will catch up with him and serve him the expected sentence. The book’s reversed structure allows Wills Crofts to reveal Inspector French’s intellect in the final chapter, transmitting the reassuring fiction to the reader that no matter how well one may think they have planned a crime, the men from Scotland Yard will always ensure that justice is dispensed.

[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 75

[2] Freeman Wills Crofts, The 12.30 from Croydon (London: British Library, 2016), p. 16

[3] Ibid., p. 19