Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Seven Dead
J. Jefferson Farjeon
Originally Published 1939

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)

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White
J. Jefferson Farjeon
Originally Published 1938

I thought that I would draw my week of Christmassy reads to a close today with a look at one of the most popular reissued Golden Age works in recent years, Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. While I own several Farjeon books, they just sat in my to read pile so this was not only my first experience of reading this book but also with this author.

The story begins with a train stuck on the line during a thick snow storm. One of the passengers runs off the train with a shout, another makes the decision to leave and then a short while later the rest of the group go in search of that passenger. They end up getting disoriented during the storm and, when one of their number gets injured and passes out, they decide to take shelter in a seemingly abandoned house.

While it seems to be deserted, there is tea boiling on the stove and provisions laid out. And when they explore the house they find a locked upstairs room where they seem to hear someone yet when they return a short while later the door is open and the room is empty. And then there is the matter of the knife left on the floor…

The chapters in which we first encounter and explore the house were by far the most successful ones for me. While the house seems quite normal, lacking blood on the walls or the sounds of screams coming from some secret chamber, it is nonetheless a little unsettling because Farjeon establishes the oddness of this setting so well. We know that there has been a thick snow storm making it unlikely that whoever prepared the tea might choose to leave and yet they are not there.

The matter of the locked room is similarly extremely effective and mysterious, only adding to the house’s intrigue. I wondered what may have been behind that door and who could have opened it when the key was on the inside and no one was seen inside the house. When we did receive an explanation I thought it was clever, simple and highly effective and only added to the story’s intrigue.

And yet…

I had loved the opening and found it to be mysterious and intriguing yet I found myself disengaging from the text in the material that followed the feverish dream sequence. I tried taking a break from the book, returning to it later and I still couldn’t really get into it although I did summon enough energy and enthusiasm to finish it.

I think there are a few reasons that I struggled with the book beyond the most obvious one that any book that my expectations may have been too high coming into it. The first thing that struck me is that Farjeon makes heavy use of dialogue here, often having group conversations take place with multiple participants. He does not always attribute speech clearly and seems to be assuming that his characters are sufficiently well-defined to make it easy for the reader to follow. Sadly, I did not find that to be the case and at times I felt it pulled me out of the story.

The second is that I didn’t care much for the character of Mr. Maltby who falls into the role of the sleuth by the end of the story. He got off to a bad start with me when he stated that he could commune with spirits but whatever goodwill I had towards him evaporated with his early displays of pedantic thoroughness in his interactions with the other passengers. I was also a little frustrated that it seems he solves this case more through intuition, instantly recognizing the importance of a seemingly mundane item.

Finally, I felt that it was hard to invest in the idea of solving the murders that take place when we really have so little sense of who these victims are for much of the book. This didn’t bother me for the first half of the story because there Farjeon devotes his energies to establishing the strange, Marie Celeste-like qualities of the house but once we are trying to understand murder I think the novel needed to become more focused.

In spite of those complaints, there were some parts of the novel that I did respond to. Of all of the books I have read this week I felt that this made the most use of the season both in terms of the hostile weather conditions and also in its awareness of the holidays. I also found the setting to be very effective and while I may not have liked Maltby much, I did appreciate that Farjeon has the other passengers (except Smith) engage in the investigation.

While I was disappointed with Mystery in White, I did wonder if I just picked up this book at the wrong moment. Certainly some people whose views I often agree with have read and enjoyed this which is enough to give me pause and make me feel like the odd one out. Perhaps some day I will revisit this to see if I like it more on a second try but, for now, I cannot personally recommend this and would steer people looking for an entertaining Golden Age mystery set at Christmas to gift to friends, family or just themselves to look at either Portrait of a Murderer or The Crime at the Noah’s Ark instead. Do be sure to get a second opinion of this one before you pass on it though because I believe I am out of step with the general consensus on this story.