Sunday, October 26, 2014
Mystery in White - J. Jefferson Farejeon
Dorothy L. Sayers said Farejeon was "quite unsurpassed for creepy skill", based on this one she was bang on the money. The subtitle is 'A Christmas Crime Story', if I thought for a moment I would be let alone for long enough on Christmas or Boxing Day I might have saved it, it would also be the perfect stocking filler (sorry to throw that out there in October) for any lover of golden age crime. Happily it's also the perfect read for a rainy autumn afternoon, especially if you time it so that it starts to get really creepy as it gets dark (easily done).
It's Christmas Eve, 6 passengers are sat in a 3rd class train carriage stuck in the middle of a field in the blizzard of the century, they all have places to get to and are debating the wisdom of trying to set off cross country for the nearest branch line. It's that or face spending the night on the train. The decision is made when the oldest occupant notices something in the snow and ups and leaves. 4 of the remaining passengers (a nice middle class brother and sister, a chorus girl, and a clerk) promptly follow, but a middle aged bore stays behind. After a while floundering around in the snow it's beginning to look like a very bad decision indeed when through the increasingly bad blizzard they almost stumble into a house. The door is unlocked, the fires burning, a kettle boiling on the hob, and a table set for tea. And nobody is home.
Cold, wet, and generally in a sorry state the 4 decide to make the best of the facilities and hope the owner is understanding when they return, meanwhile the situation becomes increasingly disturbing. A locked door becomes an open door second time around, there's a bread knife in the kitchen floor, and a disquieting portrait on the wall. It's a creepy house. As the 4 begin to thaw out more refugees from the storm appear; first the old man from the train with a dodgy cockney in tow, and next the bore. The party becomes increasingly tense and then it's revealed there was a murder on the train...
Mystery is piled upon mystery, the group are entirely cut off from the world by the snow (and the lack of a phone) and there are hints of something supernatural. Farejeon is clever about this, he doesn't overplay it so I had no idea until the end if it was going to turn into a ghost story or not. Even at the end it's not altogether explicit - there are some plot points which hinge around potentially psychic revelations but they could be explained by the power of suggestion on an overwrought imagination. Otherwise it's up to the reader to decide exactly what they want to believe. The mystery is full of twists and turns which is all very satisfying but it's also a book which made me laugh (intentionally). The thing that really sets it apart though is how Farejeon chooses his characters. They're all reasonably ordinary people, no aristocratic detective appears, no one does anything especially glamorous for a living, and the chorus girl and the clerk are the ones we get some real insight into. The clerk lives mostly in a fantasy world to escape his dull job - he dreams of rescuing an aviatrix from a crashed plane, and the chorus girls views on life, love, and sexual harassment are - well they're real. Both are treated with a respect that's subtly different from so many books of this type.
Altogether then this is the complete package; plenty of tension and suspense but with a sense if fun, lots of atmosphere and twists and turns in the plot, a mystery which keeps you guessing not just about whodunit but also about what's actually been done, and particularly well drawn characters. I'm hoping it's the first of many Farejeon's the BL will reprint, it seems he was fairly prolific so it's reasonable to assume there will be at least a few more gems in his back catalogue. A search on amazon didn't turn up much that was affordable so for now I'll be pinning my hopes on charity shops and that 'Mystery in White' sells in such quantities that he's generally put back on the map.