Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Losing Game: Review

In A Losing Game (1941) by Freeman Wills Crofts the game is blackmail and the stakes are high. Albert Reeve has been running a lucrative blackmail business to supplement his already somewhat shady income from money-lending. But there comes a day when he pushes the pawns on his game board just a little too hard a little too often and one of his victims change the rules to fit the game of murder with Reeve as the loser. 

There is a card catalog in his expensive safe with 39 suspects--those in debt to him and those whom he had been blackmailing. But the local police focus their interest on Tony Meadowes, a detective novelist whose penchant for complicated fictional murder methods make them wonder if he's finally tried out the real thing. Because somebody killed Reeve, then set up the murder scene to make it appear that he tumbled down the stairs with a lit candle and then set his house on fire. The fire, which was set up on a time delay, was meant to give the murderer an alibi and to cover up the fact that he was dead long before the blaze ever started. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out as planned. 

When Tony admits to the police that he was actually at the cottage near the time Reeve was believed to be killed, things look very black indeed and he believes that for once British justice will let him down and an innocent man will be hanged. Fortunately for Tony, his girlfriend believes him to be innocent and is determined to prove it. She met Inspector French while on holiday and decides to ask him for unofficial advice--after all the murder isn't his case and, being part of Scotland Yard, he can't interfere unless the local officials request help. He manages, through a previous acquaintance with one of the local men, to get his toe in the door...which is all the clever Scotland Yard man needs. It isn't long until he's hot on the trail of an iron-clad alibi that's just begging to be broken and he's just the man to do it.

Now, I realize full well that I just got done complaining that Dr. Thorndyke didn't show up until late in the story in my previous read. And that this fact detracted from my enjoyment. So, why, you may ask, am I rating this story more highly when Inspector French isn't part of the proceedings until about half-way through? Well, Crofts does a much better job using the first half of the book acquainting the reader with Reeves--building up what a thoroughly nasty fellow he is (we certainly don't mind too much when he does get knocked off)--and introducing us to all the potential suspects. Unlike the Thorndyke novel, I didn't feel like the time was wasted. And, honestly, this is just a much more interesting mystery. Despite the fact that Reeves is a despicable blackmailer, we wind up despising his murderer just as much when we realize that s/he nearly let an innocent man pay the penalty for their crime. 

One blatant error, which Curtis Evans points out as well in his Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, is having Reeves send a blackmailing note to one of his victims where he signs his name and gives his address! The victim could have trotted right along to the police with that little gem. This is a particular problem because Crofts stresses earlier in story that Reeves was very careful in his blackmail dealings. Other than that, the story is highly entertaining and it was great fun watching French manage to insinuate himself into the investigation without stepping on any of his colleague's toes. ★★ and a half.

*********
This counts for the "Staircase" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.
 

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