A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by George Kelley & Marcia Muller:



Collins, UK, hardcover, 1920. Seltzer, US, hardcover, 1924. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback.

   Freeman Wills Crofts’s first novel, The Cask, is considered by many critics, including Anthony Boucher, to be one of the best and most important books in the mystery genre.

   The prime virtue of this and all the Crofts novels is their tight, logical plotting, in which every detail fits solidly and smoothly. His detectives work meticulously to piece the clues together, often in order to demolish a supposedly unshakable alibi; and because they are so logical, the endings are always exceptionally satisfying.

   Early in his career, Crofts experimented with a number of sleuths, but in his fifth novel — Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925) — he introduced Inspector Joseph French, who was to appear in most of his subsequent books. Like Crofts’s previous heroes, French is a bit of a plodder who slowly and carefully works his way step by step through the process of deduction to a natural conclusion.


   In The Cask, the plot turns on alibis. When four casks fall to the deck of a ship during unloading, two of them leak wine, one is undamaged, and the last leaks sawdust. This last cask is examined more closely, and gold coins and the fingers of a human hand are found. But before the cask can be completely opened, it vanishes.

   Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is assigned to this bizarre case. Using the few clues available to him, he is able to locate the missing cask. And when it is opened, Burnley finds the body of a young woman who has been brutally strangled.

   There are no clues to the victim’s identity, so Burnley goes to Paris, where the cask was assembled. What follows is a detailed, complex investigation, involving timetables, a performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and a group of suspects with a multitude of motives.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.