The Pit Prop Syndicate

May 29, 2012

I think I’ve explained before how sometimes I find things on my kindle that I have no information about and no memory of downloading. I’ll never know why I downloaded The Pit Prop Syndicate, by Freeman Wills Crofts, I guess. It can’t have been because I’d heard good things about it, that’s for sure.

The thing is, Freeman Wills Crofts was both popular and well thought of in his day, and I cannot imagine how that could have been, because this book is terrible. The characters are wooden and moronic, and the plot is full of that thing where characters speculate wildly and their speculations end up being taken for facts. The worst thing, though, was that Crofts does little more than connect the dots; when protagonist Seymour Merrriman meets Madeleine Coburn in rural France, you know he’s going to fall in love with her, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to be convinced of it — and Crofts is singularly unconvincing.

As I read, I began to feel that Crofts shared my frustrations with his characters. By the time we’ve seen Merriman run out of gas while motorcycling through France, scrape an acquaintance with Madeleine and her father, and note some suspicious circumstances at the lumber camp Mr. Coburn runs, he’s gone from being a dull blank slate to the most stupid and irritating character I’ve encountered in ages. When Merriman goes back to London and enlists the help of his friend Hilliard in investigating the mystery, it seemed almost as if Crofts was making a second attempt as developing a halfway sympathetic protagonist. And for maybe half a chapter, I thought he might be succeeding.

Hilliard is the cue for an extended ripoff of The Riddle of the Sands, as he and Merriman tool around some French canals and Merriman gets increasingly and unsympathetically irrational about Madeleine Coburn. But Crofts is unable to supply supense or humor, so it doesn’t really work. Next, he tries transferring the action to the vicinity of Hull, where both Hilliard and Merriman spend a lot of time sitting in barrels being massively uncomfortable, which I sort of enjoyed.

Then Crofts makes a complete departure from his Riddle of the Sands imitation, as the murder of Mr. Coburn becomes the occasion for Crofts’ take on The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which he at least acknowledges in the text. This is also his opportunity to have yet another go at creating a tolerable main character in the form of Inspector George WIllis. Willis is, thankfully, less amateurish and moronic than Merriman and Hilliard, but I don’t know what else I can say for him, except that he brings us fairly quickly to the end of the book, which I appreciated.

Are Crofts’ other books better than this? I mean, exponentially better? Because otherwise I don’t see the point.



  1. I tried to read this a couple of years ago and didn’t get very far, for the same reasons you point out. According to Wikipedia, Freeman Crofts was one of the Big Four of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction! This was apparently his third book, so maybe he improved greatly after that? I hope so.

    • Yeah, I saw that on Wikipedia too, and it seems crazy. It sounds like his first book was well thought of? I don’t know, though — there’s nothing in this book that would make me want to give him a second chance.

  2. Maybe the people who liked it hadn’t read Riddle of the Sands yet?

    • Except this was published almost 20 years after that.

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