“People who snore annoy me, Inspector, but I don’t shoot them.”
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve recently been reading books from The British Library Crime Classics series. They’ve all been quite different for various reasons, and this brings me to The Z Murders, the story of a serial killer, written by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955).
The book begins one autumn at the “cold grey hour” in London’s Euston Station. Young Richard Temperley exits the all-night train from Glasgow in a dark mood. We’ve all been trapped in situations with unpleasant fellow travelers, and in Richard’s case, he’s been cursed with the company of an elderly snoring man. Richard, exhausted and hoping for sleep, “elevated his travelling status by transferring to a first-class compartment,” but he was shortly joined by another passenger who turned out to not only be an epic snorer but was “ungracious” to boot. After a very unpleasant journey, Richard is happy to leave the man behind and exit the station.
It’s 5 a.m and Richard had planned to stay with his married sister in Richmond until his own flat, occupied by tenants, becomes vacant in one more week. Due to the hour, he decides to visit a hotel, go to sleep in the smoking room, and then later have a bath and breakfast. Imagine his annoyance when he enters the hotel and discovers that his grumpy fellow traveler from the train is in the smoking room–but perhaps there’s a consolation as Richard takes note of the presence of an attractive young lady he’d noticed also exiting from the Glasgow-London train.
Within a few minutes, the Z Murderer claims the first victim, and Richard is left as a witness to the crime. Strangely the young lady who was in the smoking room at the time of the murder vanishes, and Richard, after talking to the police, goes off in hot pursuit of the mystery woman and becomes embroiled in the case.
Since I already mentioned that this is the story of a serial killer, it should come as no surprise that the body count rises. The killer leaves round tokens bearing the letter Z at each crime scene while creating fear and mayhem across the country. This is essentially a fast paced chase novel with relentless action which takes place over the course of just two days.
The Z Murders begins with a very strong start indeed, but ultimately this is my least favourite of the collection so far. While Death of an Airman, for example, allows the reader plenty of opportunity to solve (or try to solve) the mystery, we are clueless as to what is happening in this book. Richard, enamored with the mystery woman, knows that she holds crucial evidence about the case, and yet at the same time, he doesn’t suspect her of the crimes. Richard is chasing the young woman, Sylvia Wynne, and Detective Inspector James chases the pair of them. Richard, with faith that a young woman who is so beautiful couldn’t be bad, has no idea what is going on, but primed by a desire to protect Sylvia, he withholds essential information and evades the police too.
“There was a time when I, like you, rebelled against the idea of coupling crime with beauty, But facts beat us, sir.”
In a sense, Richard’s journey is also the reader’s journey. The essential information pours forth at the end of the book, and it’s a lot of digest all at once.
As I have a fondness for books set, or partially set on trains, I particularly appreciated those scenes. Worthy of specific mention is the book’s most memorable character, the policeman, Dutton, an intrepid master of disguise. He pops up all over the place in various incarnations.
Dutton’s methods were the reverse of soothing. Sometimes he stuck close. Sometimes he pretended to lose himself. His absence was as nerve-racking as his presence, because you could never depend on it. Just when you believed you had shaken him off, you would spot him up a by-street, or find his reflection on a shop-window. he was never disturbed by discovery. He merely smiled or winked.
“You think you’re winning, don’t you?” Richard growled once, as they met on the top of a bus.
“Bound to win, sir,’ he replied. “I’ve got the whole of the law behind me.”
“If only you had the sense to see that I’m not against the law!”
“Then why not join up with the law, sir.”
“We’ve already discussed that.”
The Z Murders is a bit of a curiosity in terms of the evolution of the police. These days Richard would be arrested for obstruction of justice, but in this 1932 novel, Detective Inspector James comes to some sort of gentleman’s agreement with Richard by granting a lack of cooperation for a period of time. At several points in the novel, Dutton laments that Richard doesn’t trust the police, and there’s the implied idea that Richard, as a gentleman, is above the law, or at the very least, must be handled differently.
“Well, it’s a pity some of these nice young chaps with good faith can’t trust a bit more in ours, and fall into line,” observed Dutton, feelingly.
Whereas Death of an Airman, written by Marxist author Christopher St John Sprigg, was refreshingly devoid of class attitudes, class plays an immense role in Farjeon’s novel. Plus then there’s the issue of victims–Farjeon makes them all unpleasant or of no-account–which in one case is a bit distasteful. Obviously we’re not supposed to waste time on sympathy, and as I mentioned, in one case, this reflects the attitudes of the times.
In spite of the novel’s faults, I’ll be trying Farjeon again soon as most of the book was an addictive read. He’s the brother, by the way, of children’s author Eleanor Farjeon, and nearly all of his books (a huge list) are OOP.