Category Archives: Farjeon J. Jefferson

Mystery in White: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

“Do you feel the horror in this house?’

mystery-in-white

J. Jefferson Farjeon’s novel, Mystery in White, takes the idea of Christmas being a pleasant time spent with family and friends and subverts it into entrapment with strangers–possibly dangerous strangers. The story begins in a third-class compartment on the 11:37 train from Euston. It’s Christmas Eve in the middle of a historic snowstorm, and the passengers are travelling to their destinations all with definite time restrictions. There’s a good assortment of characters:

  • Jessie Noyes, a young, platinum blonde chorus girl who’s travelling to Manchester
  • a brother and sister, David and Lydia Carrington
  • shy clerk, Robert Thomson, a man with a “negligible personality,” on his way to visit an aunt for Christmas
  • elderly “bore,” know-it-all, Mr Hopkins
  • Mr Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society off to interview the ghost of Charles I in Naseby

The passengers in the compartment are all heartily sick and tired of comments from the “elderly bore” Mr Hopkins. According to him, he’s been everywhere, seen everything, and there’s a certain oneupmanship to his comments. Then horror of horrors, the train stops on the tracks.

The solid guard, passing along the corridor at that moment, was turned to with relief, although he had no comfort to offer.

“I’m afraid I can’t say anything,” he replied to inquiries, repeating a formula of which he was weary. “We’re doing all we can, but with the line blocked before and behind, well, there it is.”

“I call it disgraceful!” muttered the bore. “Where’s the damned breakdown gang or whatever they call themselves?”

One of the passengers floats an idea of walking in the snow to the next closest station, at Hemmersby, five or six miles away. This seems a foolhardy idea, so the passengers are stuck in the carriage, and an atmosphere of gloom descends. Mr Maltby takes action:

Then a startling thing happened. The old man in the corner suddenly opened his eyes and sat upright. He started straight ahead of him, but Jessie, who was in his line of vision, was convinced that he was not seeing her. A moment later he swerved round towards the corridor. Beyond the corridor window something moved; a dim white smudge that faded out into the all-embracing snow as they all watched it.

Mr. Maltby grabs his bags and exits the train with a parting”merry Christmas” to his fellow passengers. The bore thinks this is madness, but when the rest of the passengers light out, he, later, joins them. At first they are able to follow Maltby’s footprints, but then they realise that there’s more than one set. Everyone underestimated the volume of snow and the cold.

The snow had ceased falling, and the motionless white scene was like a film that had suddenly stopped.

The snow begins to fall again, and Jessie hurts her ankle.

Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.

Just as the situation becomes desperate, the travelers find a house: the door is unlocked, a fire is lit, and tea is laid–almost as though the house is waiting for them. …

Of course, there’s something very strange afoot, and Mr. Maltby leads the investigation into the murder that apparently occurred on the train and the doings at the abandoned house where all these passengers are trapped by the sheer volume of snow. It’s an intriguing premise for crime buffs, and the set-up and atmospheric descriptions of snow create a very strong beginning to the book. Unfortunately, the plot lagged after the initial set-up, the wrap-up was overly complicated (some mental juggling is required to keep up with the plot,) and the characters are ‘types’ as befitting this sort of mystery. Nonetheless Farjeon gives us some observations about human nature: here’s Jessie the chorus girl:

She was well aware of both her power and the limitation of her power, and while the power, despite its small thrills, gave her a secret dread, the limitation was a secret sorrow.

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Silent Nights: Martin Edwards ed.

“Not a nice murder. Not at all a nice murder.”

Silent Nights, another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, is a compilation of short stories–all with the common factor that the action takes place over Christmas. Police agencies and even the FBI warn that crime increases during the holiday season. Is it all the late night shopping, the carrying of cash? In other words, is the increase due to increased opportunities or are the statistics driven more by the need of the criminal to provide extra for their families? After reading Silent Nights, if there’s a connective theme, it’s how the Christmas season creates opportunities for criminals, and in some instances the season even creates such tempting opportunities that normally honest people turn to crime.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

  • The Blue Carbuncle: Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Parlour Tricks: Ralph Plummer
  • A Happy Solution: Raymund Allen
  • The Flying Stars: G. K. Chesterton
  • Stuffing: Edgar Wallace
  • The Unknown Murderer: H.C. Bailey
  • The Absconding Treasurer: J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • The Necklace of Pearls: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Case is Altered: Margery Allingham
  • Waxworks: Ethel Lina White
  • Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen
  • The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing
  • A Problem in White: Nicholas Blake
  • The Name on the Window: Edmund Crispin
  • Beef for Christmas: Leo Bruce

Short story collections are a great way to discover new names, and in  Silent Nights, there are some very famous names and others I’d never heard of. This collection begins with an intro by Martin Edwards and each story is prefaced with short biographical content.

silent nightsSome of the stories are very traditional ‘who-dun-its,’ so in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the mystery concerns a lost top hat and a stolen diamond with Holmes managing to deduce a great deal from the hat that has seen better days while Watson stands on the sidelines wondering just how Holmes manages to make such brilliantly accurate conclusions.  Other stories, such as Dorothy Sayers’ The Necklace of Pearls and Edgar Wallace’s Stuffing take place at Christmas country gatherings. Some stories are very deadly serious detective stories which concern murder while other stories are light and humorous in tone.

“A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes,” remarked Crook, with some impatience; “and a Conservative does not mean a man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.”

“But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice,” to own your own soot.”

That’s an excerpt from the witty G.K Chesterton story, The Flying Stars.

Of the collection, and there’s a very nice range of stories here, I have to say that I was much more attracted to the unusual stories: The Unknown Murderer: H. C Bailey, Waxworks: Ethel Lina White, Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen, and The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing.

The Unknown Murderer from H. C Bailey is the story of a serial killer, and the story’s powerful sense of evil set this tale rather disturbingly apart from the others. Waxworks from Ethel Lina White concerns an intrepid young female reporter who opts to spend the night in a waxworks museum to investigate the truth behind the mysterious deaths that have taken place there. In Cambric Tea, a young doctor sacrifices  his Christmas holiday in order to attend to a cantankerous old man who insists he’s being poisoned by his wife. In The Chinese Apple, a woman reluctantly travels to England from Florence in order to take over the care of a niece she’s never met.

Ethel Lina White also wrote the novel Some Must Watch which was made into the film The Spiral Staircase. Joseph Shearing is one of the male pen names used by Marjorie Bowen, so in other words, she ( author’s real name, Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long)  made my short list twice. The biographical intro to the story from Martin Edwards mentions that ‘Joseph Shearing’ wrote For Her to See (made into the film So Evil My Love) which was inspired by the real Charles Bravo murder case. Film fans may be interested to know that Marjorie Bowen, as Joseph Shearing  also wrote Blanche Fury and Moss Rose. Three out of four of my favourite stories, Waxworks, Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple were very cinematic stories, and perhaps that’s no coincidence.

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Thirteen Guests: J Jefferson Farjeon (1936)

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.

Thirteen guestsThe 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.

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The Z Murders: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

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.

Z murdersWithin 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.

Review copy.

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