John C Adams Reviews 'Mystery in White'
Mystery In White by J Jefferson Farjeon
(Wright & Brown, 1937, reprinted in 2014 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series)
Part of the joy of browsing through bookshops is the chance discovery of a forgotten classic. J Jefferson Farjeon wrote more than sixty crime and thriller novels, and was accorded his place in the Golden Age of British murder in the Twenties and Thirties. His work has since fallen out of print and been largely forgotten by a general reading audience.
It's Christmas Eve, and the 11.37 from Euston Station has become snowbound partway through its journey north from London. Frustrated by the lengthy wait and next to no information about whether rescuers are coming, a compartment full of passengers debate whether to leave the train, hike the few miles across country to another line and catch another train from Hemmersby to continue their journey. When Mr Maltby, an old man who claims to have psychic powers, leaps down from the train into the snowdrift, his fellow passengers feel bound to follow. Siblings David and Lydia, chorus girl Jessie, young clerk Robert and the elderly bore Mr Hopkins leave the train and attempt to hike after Maltby. However, they soon become lost in the whirling snow and take refuge in a local home, quickly joined by another passenger, Smith.
The house is warm and homely, and the bread and butter set out and the kettle boiling for tea show recent occupation. The group scruple to remain there without any obvious host to greet them, but the inclement weather prevents any further attempt to reach Hemmersby that night. Jessie's sprained ankle worsens and Robert's fever sends his temperature right up, so they are glad to abandon their journey for the night and to have somewhere safe to shelter. However, the revelation that Smith assaulted another passenger before leaving the train, and in fact strangled him as part of a botched robbery, throws them into disarray.
The novels focuses initially on Smith's crime, his subsequent escape from the immediate vicinity and the bizarre absence of any occupiers. Later, the backstory about the house and the extended family who have lived there for some generations is filled in. The early chapters relate more to establishing the characters of the passengers from the train, who set about investigating the Smith mystery together.
I was intrigued by the absence of any clear authority figure. This is quite unusual in murder mysteries, where there is usually some accepted individual (either your favourite detective or a pillar of society) to step up, conduct the investigation and keep everyone else in line. After I realised that the elderly bore and the psychic man (the two older figures) were not going to fulfil this function, I really got into the idea that three of the younger people (David, Lydia and Jessie) would do so. Even then, this was a very democratic environment with the older men participating as well. For a novel published in the Thirties there was a very welcome lack of social stratification, and the traditional assumptions that a middle-class individual would take charge were simply absent. The group effort was what I liked best about this novel, although at times it did feel a little chaotic.
The narrative tension was supplied by, in all, four murders and also by the fact that the group was trapped in the house and within its immediate vicinity by the heavy snow. It reminded me quite a bit of 'The Sittaford Mystery' by Agatha Christie.
At the start the characters felt a little in danger of being presented as stock 'types', but over time they each developed in a way that was subtle and nuanced. I liked the way that the reader was given plenty of space to make up their mind about each of them.
'Murder Mystery' is a wide genre and capable of being very elastic. I loved the absence of a clear leader or readymade detective. Somehow, it seemed very real.
Thank you so much for reading my review of Mystery in White. Many thanks to Sandra Ahn Mode, Adam Chang and Annie Spratt for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash. My next post is on Friday. In the meantime, the comments section is open!