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.
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Mm, that sounds interesting - I love the snowbound theme. Thanks for describing this one so well. And you see the author was Eleanor Farjeon's brother! Seems like everybody literary used to be related...ReplyDelete
I read a bit about him, but not much. It sounds like he was part of a sort if writing dynasty. I think one article I read pointed out that his Jewish roots meant he avoided the casual anti semitism that infects so much older fiction. - which is nice and apparently his interest in the lives if his more working class characters is a theme throughout his booksReplyDelete
Sorry, hit publish when I was trying to punctuate and iPad won't let me edit that comment. Basically this book felt special, it instantly sent me searching for more because it was so entertaining but beneath that it was also really interesting. I'm genuinely surprised by the way he disappeared and very much hope he sees something of a revival.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for introducing me to this book. I really love Dororthy Sayers and if she recommended him, you really can't go wrong can you? I looked around and I can't find much else by him, sadly. I hope if a few of us start reading this one, he'll make a comeback. BTW, do you know if he was married to Eleanor Farejeon. She wrote some great children's books. Two writers in one family would be an interesting combination. ------ ah, I just checked. She's his sister. Her other brother was a writer and so was her father so they come by the talent honestly! Four writers in one family ---- I wonder if this is a record?ReplyDelete
A great review! I've downloaded it to my Kindle and will try to use December as the perfect time to read it.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Would love to get hold of some more of his books, this one really was a gem.Delete
Excellent review -- I've just read this and couldn't agree more with all you say here. I think a revival is well overdue.ReplyDelete
Absolutely due a revival. Really surprises me that something this good has slipped through the net for so long.Delete
I'm glad you reviewed this as I've been looking at these British Library crime novels. They're such beautiful editions, and this sounds like the one to go for.ReplyDelete
This is a great place to start. Some of the plot points are a bit dodgy but atmosphere and characterisation are both so good that it just makes it more fun. The whole series has been good so far but for me this is the best of the lot by a bit. Fingers crossed for lots more.ReplyDelete
That seems like just my kind of read. Nice review - Enough to make me want to look for it on my next shopping trip.ReplyDelete
I hope you find a copy :-)ReplyDelete