Book name: Thirteen Guests
Author: J Jefferson Farjeon
Format: ebook, print
Genre: Murder mystery
Publication Date: 1936
Star Rating: 4/5
I do love a good country-house murder mystery, and the very best of them were penned in the Thirties during the golden age of the murder mystery.
J Jefferson Farjeon was a prolific author, writing over sixty crime and thriller novels. Dorothy L Sayers paid tribute to his ‘creepy skill’, and his play Number Seventeen was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock.
Thirteen Guests is in some ways a typical country-house murder mystery. It takes place just outside London during a single weekend in a large, luxurious and well-staffed home. The guests will go hunting at least one day during their stay.
Twelve guests have been invited by Lord Aveling, who is new money and looking to break into Conservative Party circles.
Aveling’s choice of guests is a careful one. A society journalist to spread word of the gathering; and a popular author, actress and portrait artist to give glamour.
His daughter Anne, her close friend and also her potential fiancé, who is a Liberal politician thinking of crossing the aisle to sit with the Conservatives, strike a more familial tone.
In addition to these planned arrivals, Lord Aveling is requested to extend the invitation to a Mr and Mrs Chater as a favour to the Liberal MP.
Anxious to oblige the man he hopes will become his son in law, Lord Aveling invites the Chaters to join his house party.
Through the kindness of a young widow, helping a young man injured as he got down from the train, the number of guests increases from twelve to an unlucky thirteen in the form of John Foss.
J Jefferson Farjeon is quick to point out to us that the bad luck will fall on the thirteenth guest to enter the house: Mr Chater.
Chater and his wife are unpopular, with the former eavesdropping and using fellow guests for his own ends, and with his wife anxious and depressed. Hence, no one really cares if something unpleasant does happen to Mr Chater.
By the end of the first night, a man is found dead in a nearby quarry and Lord Aveling’s dog has also been killed.
The man is identified by the police as the estranged husband of one of the guests, and suspicion falls on other members of the party who are established as being connected with the victim. Mr Chater also meets a gruesome end out hunting.
I really enjoyed Thirteen Guests. There was plenty of attention to the personalities and relationships of the guests, perhaps slightly more than is usual in a murder mystery.
I really appreciated that element, even if it did mean that the murder only took place when the main action in Thirteen Guests was already halfway through.
The relationships between each guest, and their personalities, were key to the resolution of the crimes, so this apportionment of space within the novel worked.
Most murder mysteries are really about insiders (family and close friends connected with the house itself). Yet Thirteen Guests was far more about the disparate group of people brought together under its roof.
This is actually very common in real-life country-house parties, where it is usual to have comparative stranger such as a society journalist or celebrities brought it to create glamour and report on it. I really felt that J Jefferson Farjeon understood how country-house parties worked in practice.
The resolution of the mystery in Thirteen Guests, just like most of the guest themselves, revolved around outsiders only slightly connected to the Aveling family.
As a result, the story was less of a shock to the status quo than many murder mysteries, in that it was outsiders rather than family or close friends who drove the narrative.
There was a sense of the lives of the Avelings being badly disturbed for two days before returning to normal also immediately afterwards. This made the feel even more cosy than is normal in country-house party murder mysteries, but I liked this idea very much for its novelty.
Thirteen Guests was an excellent murder mystery, and I would highly recommend it.
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