The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

The story of a complex police investigation full of surprises

The story starts with a consignment of French wines unloaded at the docks in London
The story starts with a consignment of French
wines unloaded at the docks in London
Although it was his first novel, The Cask, by Freeman Wills Crofts, has been judged to be one of his most ambitious and intricately plotted.

The action takes place in London and Paris, there are three different sets of investigators and, according to the author himself, the novel was about 40,000 words too long.

But despite being published more than a century ago, The Cask is as compelling and fast moving as many contemporary novels and I think it is still well worth reading.

The story begins when a consignment of French wines is unloaded from a steamship at the docks in London. One of the casks is slightly damaged during the process, so the shipping clerk, who is overseeing the unloading, looks inside it. He finds that it doesn’t contain wine after all, but gold sovereigns. He then makes a gruesome discovery as he searches amongst the sawdust in which the sovereigns are packed.

He consults his superior and they decide to go to the police, but when they return to the docks they find the cask and its contents have gone.

The investigation takes the story's detective, Inspector Burnley, to Paris
The investigation takes the story's detective,
Inspector Burnley, to Paris
Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is put on the case and he manages to track down the cask. When it is unpacked, the police find they are dealing with a murder investigation.

Burnley’s enquiries take him to Paris, from where the cask was dispatched, and he pursues his investigation with the help of Inspector Lefarge, a detective from the Sûreté.

After exhaustive enquiries, the case becomes clearer and a Frenchman living in  London, Leon Felix, is arrested.

The case is then taken up by the solicitor of the accused, John Clifford, and the King’s Counsel he instructs, Lucius Heppenstall. They meet to prepare a defence for their client and review the evidence against Felix.

They decide that if their client is innocent he must have been the victim of a cunning plot to implicate him. Their planned course of action is to test the evidence and they decide to employ a team of private detectives to travel to Paris and review the work of Scotland Yard and the Sûreté.

The Cask is available as a
Collins Crime Club title

Georges La Touche, who is considered the smartest private detective in London, is dispatched to Paris with some of his men and he painstakingly tests all the evidence the police have found, working tirelessly to try to break the alibis of the people involved

In a dramatic denouement he confronts the person who has masterminded the whole plot against Felix.

The alibis depend on train times, as do many of the alibis of the characters in later novels by Crofts, who worked for the railways as a civil engineer until he retired to write full time.

In 1946, Crofts wrote a Foreword for a new edition of The Cask, describing how he came up with the idea for the story.

When he started writing the novel in about 1912 he had been off work for a lengthy period due to an illness and was bored and wanted something to do. He says he started by writing down the most absurd and improbable things he could think of. He read the first chapter of The Cask to his wife and she encouraged him to complete the book.

Looking back, he says the story could probably have been told in about 80,000 words instead of 120,000. Crofts went on to write another 30 novels, developing a much more systematic way of plotting and writing along the way.

However, more than a century after The Cask was first published, it continues to intrigue and entertain new readers.

I found it to be well written, exciting and constantly surprising, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective fiction.

The novels of Freeman Wills Crofts are still in print, even though the author died more than 60 years ago.

They can be brought from or

(Paris picture by Sadnos via Pixabay)


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