Tag Archives: train journey

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.

Review copy

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Death in the Tunnel: Miles Burton (1936)

“This case of yours seems to get more and more involved, the further you go.”

In Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, Sir Wilfred Saxonby travels home by the 5 pm. train from London’s Cannon Street to his home in Stourford. He pays the guard a pound to make sure that he is alone in his first class compartment. On the journey home, as the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver applies the brakes after seeing a red light swinging above the tracks, but then the train picks up speed when the light changes to green. About that time, the guard stops to speak to Saxonby and finds that his passenger has been shot through the heart.

Death in the tunnel

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard takes over the case from the local constabulary, and initially Saxonby’s death appears to be a clear cut case of suicide as a gun bearing Saxonby’s monogram is found at his feet. But there are a few aspects of the case that trouble Arnold. Where is Saxonby’s train ticket? And what about that mysterious light in the tunnel?  There were twenty-four additional passengers in the first class compartments (with the doors locked between the first and third class sections in case the riff-raff tries to crash in), and what of the mysterious, elderly twenty-fifth passenger? Although all the evidence points towards suicide, Arnold has this nagging feeling about some aspects of the case which don’t quite add up, and as he says, “Details like that have a way of mattering.”

As for Saxonby, although he “was a man of temperate, not to say frugal habits,” he was also intolerant, “respected rather than liked,” and as a magistrate may have made a number of deadly enemies. …

Death in the Tunnel is an intriguing book from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and comes recommended especially for fans of ‘train crime.’ There’s no CSI–just painstaking, logical police work, and in this book, the troubling aspects of the case are easy to grasp. Arnold has to follow the traces of the case that don’t add up, and he consults his friend, the wealthy amateur sleuth Merrion for his opinion. The two men work together and apply their various theories to the possible suicide or hypothetical murder of Saxonby.

Merrion laughed. “What I like about this case is the delicate balance of evidence,” he replied. “To begin with, there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it.”

The relationship between Merrion and Arnold is subtly portrayed. There’s no obsequiousness on the part of Arnold, and no condescending revelations from Merrion. They see each other as peers and so treat each other accordingly with mutual respect–often dining while they discuss the case, presenting various theories and seeing how those theories hold against the clues. Even though they certainly don’t always agree, they make a good team–Merrion, for example, believes that the identification of Saxonby’s wallet is central to the case while Arnold thinks this is a trivial detail.  This case is fascinating for as Arnold pursues one clue after another, and seems to be perhaps closer to solving the mystery of Saxonby’s death, instead of narrowing down suspects and theories, the case widens.  All of this is quite clear logically although I’ll admit that I did get confused when it came to the forger section.

British Library Crime Classics has another title from Miles Burton (real name Cecil John Street, 1884-1965) due out in North America shortly: The Secret of High Eldersham. This is another author whose books are almost entirely out of print, so it’s marvellous to see a publisher bringing Burton back to be read and enjoyed all over again

Review copy

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The 6:41 to Paris: Jean-Philippe Blondel

“It’s crazy how once people turn forty friendships seem to disintegrate. They get transferred, they’re busy with their kids, you no longer share the same opinions–everything alienates you from people you thought would be close to you all your life. All that’s left are laconic email messages. Phone calls punctuated with long silences. Sporadic meetings.”

A few years ago, someone told me that if he’d known he’d live to age fifty, he’d have taken better care of himself. I thought the speaker was being funny–that is, until I looked over at his face and saw that he was dead serious. Anyway, that man, that comment came to mind as I read Jean-Philippe Blondel’s  short novel, The 6:41 to Paris. This story of middle-aged regrets, responsibilities  and disappointments is set on a train and told in a split narrative which unfolds over the course of the journey.

Chance brings Cécile, a successful 47 -year old business owner to take an early train back to Paris after spending the weekend with her aging parents. Cécile owns a chain of shops specializing in natural beauty products and she’s on the brink of expanding her chain even further. She’s trim, smartly dressed and has aged well. She’s sitting in the second class compartment when a faded middle-aged man sits next to her. At first she doesn’t recognise him–but then she realises that the man in the next seat is Philippe Leduc–her first love and the man who cruelly dumped her years earlier.

641 to parisIt’s not too surprising that Cécile doesn’t immediately recognize the man in the next seat. The Philippe of her youth was confident, good-looking and able to get any girl he wanted. While time has been kind to Cécile, Philippe has aged badly; he’s out of shape and seems defeated.  What happened? What went wrong in his life?

The interior voices of these two characters go back and forth as they recognize each other in horror and in Philippe’s case, in shame. Should they acknowledge their old relationship? Should they open up a past that neither of them wants to remember? As the train continues on its journey and Cécile and Philippe’s thoughts reveal fragments of their story, we see how pivotal their relationship was in forming the people that they’ve become.

While Cécile is admirable & a success, she’s not particularly likeable. There’s something rather cold and brittle about her, and while she moves efficiently through the world, there’s the sense that if you prick her carefully groomed surface, she’ll shatter into a million pieces. Sitting on the train she’s annoyed that she “wasted” a weekend with her parents, and she’s not sure if she’ll care much when they eventually die. Emotional disconnectedness is one of the things that first attracted her to her husband Luc, who now in middle age is “one of those aging, interchangeable, middle management executives–for a stationery company that is locating by the hour.” As for Philippe, he works in a superstore selling TVs and stereos, is divorced and has two children. His thoughts gradually reveal his emotional life, and the relationship he’s forged with actor Mathieu.

A great deal is made of Mathieu, the third main, yet absent character in this novel. Both Cécile and Philippe knew Mathieu in their youth, and they’re both (in their separate thoughts) surprised that this rather uninteresting, average young man became a famous actor. Here’s Philippe thinking about Mathieu:

I was only too aware of how our paths in life were heading in different directions. We had met at a time when he was merely a rough draft of the person he would later become, while I was at my zenith. He would keep rising, whereas I had begun to sink gradually. Every time I caught his face in a magazine, those were my thoughts. About failure. About destiny slipping out of your grasp.

And that’s what I enjoyed the most about this quiet introspective novel–how the choices we make forge the people we become. Some choices, as in the case of Cécile, are deliberate and life altering, whereas Philippe’s choices, although every bit as life changing, have occurred without him even noticing.

No one ever warned us that life would be long. Those easy slogans that make your heart beat faster, like “carpe diem” or “die young”–all that stuff was just nonsense.

No one told us, either, that the hardest thing would not be breaking up, but decay. The disintegration of relationships, people, tastes, bodies, desire. Until you reach a sort of morass where you no longer know what it is you love. Or hate. And it’s not as unpleasant a condition as you might think. It’s just lifelessness. With scatter spots of light.

As readers, we know that this seemingly simple novel must end with the train journey, but the author opts to leave the possibility of an unknown narrative arc stretching ahead. Both Cécile and Philippe have another choice to make. There’s Cécile ignoring Philippe and Philippe agonizing about whether or not to speak, so both characters face yet another life changing moment. The novel’s fascinating premise–two people reconnecting decades after a poisonous event–explores how incidents shape us in ways we don’t realize. In this instance, after fate threw them in each other’s path, both Philippe and Cécile are in control of the decision about how to handle this meeting. It’s not exactly a second chance, but it’s close. In some ways this aspect of the novel reminded me of Vertigo–a crime novel in which a character obsessed with a woman is given a second chance at love. Love isn’t in the cards for Cécile and Philippe but acceptance, forgiveness and closure are all possibilities.

Gert’s review

Review copy. Translated by Alison Anderson

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