It’s been a long time since I’ve read a country house murder mystery, and I’d forgotten how much fun they can be. Thirteen Guests from J. Jefferson Farjeon is a delightful read and a perfect example of the sub-genre. I recently read The Z Murders from the same author, and while I liked the book until about the halfway mark, it’s definitely not my favourite from the British Library Crime Classics series. I’m glad I gave Farjeon, who’s largely OOP, a second chance.
The novel is set at Bragley Court, the ancestral estate of Lord Aveling, and the story opens at a railway station in Flensham as the guests begin to arrive. Twelve guests were invited, and the number thirteen is due to the inclusion of a young man, John Foss, who injures his foot at the railway station and is taken to Bragley Court for medical attention.
The guests are a broad assortment of people, and while that could reflect the host’s desire for an interesting weekend, in reality, the invitations are all made with some sort of purpose in mind. The owner of Bragley Court, Lord Aveling, “a Conservative with ambition” wants to become a marquis or an earl. He’s short of money and plans on arranging a marriage with his daughter, Anne to one of the guests. She isn’t cooperating, which is bad news for Lord Aveling as the match would be politically advantageous. Also resident in Bragley Court are Lady Aveling and her aged, infirm mother, Mrs. Morris. And here’s the guest list:
- Widow Nadine Leveridge : A beautiful, headstrong woman who was rather hard on her husband while he was alive. He called her: “One of life’s glorious risks.”
- Harold Taverley–a quiet man, a cricketer, who follows Anne around like a puppy.
- Author Edyth-Fermoy-Jones: she’d rather talk about the crimes that take place in her own books than the murders at Bragley Court
- Leicester Pratt: a painter whose works have declined in quality as he became more successful. He’s all “the rage” at the moment and is there to paint a portrait of Anne. As another guest points out, “He finds your weakness and paints around it.”
- Mr Rowe, the Sausage King & his wife–very much out-of-place in Bragley Court, but Mr Rowe seems oblivious to this
- Ruth Rowe, daughter of the Sausage King
- Sir James Earnshaw: Liberal, “wondering whether to turn Right or Left.”
- Zena Wilding: aging actress
- Lionel Bultin: gossip columnist, a “ruthless reader of character.” “This weekend was a sort of bribe. The tobacco and beads for the naughty indian with the scalping knife.”
- Mr and Mrs Chater–Bultin wittily quips that a letter ‘e’ “slipped between the second and third letters of their names” would describe the Chaters more accurately
- John Foss: a young man injured at the railway station
So while all these guests have prior relationships and current agendas, John Foss is a newcomer. As Anne notes “it’s rather pleasant having you here–you’re so absolutely nothing-to-do-with-anything.” With his injured foot, he’s parked on a couch in the ante-room and mostly forgotten. Due to his location in the house he’s privy to incidents that others are unaware of.
Due to the rising body count, it’s fairly easy to imagine being one of the guests and wanting to leave and yet being forbidden to do so by Inspector-Inspector Kendall. He’s called to the case by pure circumstance, and he’s an interesting character who’s thorough when it comes to crime detection: “If I’d been born with a kink in my brain,” he said, “I’d have been one of the big criminals, but fortunately for law and order my brain is not pathological, so I catch ’em instead.” The addition to the guests of John Foss is interesting because as a newcomer, he picks up vibes and tension that others seem unaware of. When first entering the house, he notes that “something’s wrong.”
But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious loungehall that glowed in the late afternoon sunshine and flickered in the light of an enormous log-fire. Something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets, and none of the people John had so far met reflected complete mental ease.
The framework of the novel is good–although I was a little disappointed in the deaths (you’ll have to read the book to know what I mean). Apart from the murders, which with a diminishing number of suspects allows the reader an opportunity to solve the crimes, there is also witty repartee between some of the guests. Humour is introduced through the character of author Edyth-Fermoy-Jones, a truly insufferable woman, constantly bragging about her own books while knocking others, including: “of course that obscene thing, All Quiet on the Western Front.” She also claims that John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps was copied from the title of one of her books–Forty-Nine Stairs. A stag hunt takes place, and is thankfully not described, but the event reminds the reader that a casual killing takes place, and it’s not just the stag who dies. The author doesn’t pay equal attention to all of the guests, so unfortunately it’s easy to guess who should be scrutinized. All these murders take place against the highly mannered behaviour of the guests and creates a good sense of contrast–all that polite, social considerate under which lurks the basest of human nature, and that’s exactly how it should be with a country house murder mystery.