“Do you feel the horror in this house?’
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.