Back in the run up to Christmas I read and reviewed J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White – a novel that was reissued just at the perfect time to catch a growing interest in Golden Age crime fiction to become a surprise bestseller. While I liked some aspects of the setup though, I found I didn’t care for the book as a whole and was ultimately quite disappointed.
Happily I found Seven Dead to be a far more satisfying read as it not only had a strange and somewhat unsettling opening but managed to deliver a compelling resolution to those ideas.
The opening chapters of the book detail how a man breaks into a seemingly empty house intent on looting the place. He quickly amasses a good haul and is about to leave when he notices a door with the key in the lock. When he unlocks and opens it he flees in terror from the house, getting arrested in his desperation to get out of there.
This is a wonderful opening for the book and it builds up lots of anticipation about just what the burglar may have discovered inside. When we do get to learn about the crime scene it is quite wonderfully macabre. Seven bodies, six of them men and one a woman dressed in men’s clothing, in a sort of circle with lots of strange details scattered around the room. There is a note implying that they are members of a suicide club yet our detectives note that the room had been locked from the outside meaning that an eighth person must have been present.
The investigation that follows is conducted in two countries by two different people. One of them is a policeman, Inspector Kendall, the other is Thomas Hazeldean, a freelance journalist who is there when the crime scene is discovered. While the former is a competent and diligent detective who gets on with his job, the latter is the more interesting and characterful figure and thankfully it is he that is the focus for the lion’s share of the story.
Hazeldean is a very likeable figure, approaching his investigation with a disarming flippancy and charm that enable him to befriend and break down some stony resistance from the characters he encounters (and to get himself access to the investigation in the first place) yet clearly he also possesses observational and deductive skills. He’s your sort of perfect 1930s adventure thriller hero and I particularly enjoyed his lightly flirtatious interactions with a young woman he meets in Boulogne.
Farjeon’s story unfolds at a brisk pace, packing plenty of revelations and throwing several strange and unsettling supporting characters into the mix once the action shifts to the continent. This makes for quite an exciting and atmospheric tale and I genuinely had little idea where things were headed until shortly before the end of the novel.
That is not to say though that the killer is difficult to identify. I would argue that this is the most straightforward aspect of the plot – instead the reader’s task really is to explain how and why these strange events have occurred. I didn’t mind this at all and enjoyed the way the case comes into focus but the ending did leave me with some mixed feelings.
After some skillful and wonderfully paced investigating, I felt the resolution of the case was really quite abrupt. Certainly I liked some of the ideas involved in that ending but rather than teasing and reasoning out the solution we are just presented with an explanation. I felt it was a little anticlimactic and wished Farjeon had given that part of his story a little more room to breathe.
On the whole though I think this is a really quite thrilling and entertaining read. I would certainly suggest it above Mystery in White as a starting point with Farjeon and I’ll look forward to continuing to explore his works over the next few months.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Number in the Title (What)