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Locked Room Reviews:
Mystery in White: J. Jefferson Farjeon
A great Christmas mystery ride!
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Sometimes life just picks you up and takes you for a ride! Six passengers leave Euston Station on Christmas Eve, bound for their holiday engagements, but their train is soon stalled by heavy snow. Should they wait – perhaps all night – or set off across the fields to a nearby station? Little do they know that fate has already made very different plans! ‘Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story’ by J. Jefferson Farjeon, is a marvellous tale of a haunting Christmas adventure that will keeping you guessing right to the end. Not really an impossible crime, but this story leads us down a rabbit hole, where the refugees from the train discover a mysterious house, all laid out for tea, with the kettle boiling, but no one is home in this countryside version of the Mary Celeste!
Joseph Jefferson Farjeon (1883 – 1955) was an English mystery novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. Farjeon was the grandson of the American actor Joseph Jefferson. His parents were Jefferson’s daughter Maggie (1853–1935) and Benjamin Farjeon (1838–1903), a prolific Victorian novelist, born in Whitechapel to an impoverished immigrant family who travelled widely before settling in England in 1868. Writing became the family business for the Farjeons. His brother, Herbert, was a dramatist and scholar, another brother, Harry, became a composer, while his sister, Eleanor, became a renowned children’s author. Farjeon worked for ten years at Amalgamated Press in London, before finally launching his literary career. One of Farjeon’s best known works is his play, Number 17, which was made into the film Number Seventeen (1932) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. He also wrote the screenplay for Michael Powell’s ‘My Friend the King’ (1932) and provided the story for Bernard Vorhaus’s ‘The Ghost Camera’ (1933).
Farjeon was a well known mystery author in his day, writing more than 60 crime novels, which were admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, who noted that he was “unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.” Unfortunately, most of Farjeon’s works have now been long forgotten, at least until the British Library reissued ‘Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story’ in 2014, which to their immense surprise became a runaway bestseller last Christmas season. (Independent Sept, 2015) Two more of Farjeon’s great novels have since been released in 2015, ‘Thirteen Guests‘ and ‘The Z Murders‘.
Farjeon introduces us to the passengers in the train compartment, stalled in the middle of a Christmas Eve blizzard, by having them complete their journeys in their imaginations! Jessie Noyes, a pretty young blonde chorus girl from the wrong side of town, imagines herself in Manchester, attending a promising audition, while Lydia Carrington, and her brother, David, imagine themselves in a comfortable bed at a Christmas party where they are expected. Young Robert Thomson, a pale man who does accounts in a basement office, already lives in an imaginary world, but now must imagine his rich aunt imagining that he is making excuses. He is also starting to imagine a fever – or is that real? Then there is “the bore”, one Mr. Hopkins, who also has too much imagination – of the wrong sort – claiming to have seen “real snow” in the Yukon, played chess with a Zulu warrior, and “exploded the the Indian rope trick in Rangoon”. The bore is not about to listen to any of the “bosh” put forward by the final traveller, Mr. Edward Maltby, of The Royal Psychical Society, who believes that emotions can be trapped by one’s surroundings. He is currently on his way to an interview with Charles the First, in fact as well as imagination, hopefully at a time when this monarch is still in possession of his head.
When the train conductor can offer no useful information regarding their future, the first to raise the question of leaving is the otherwise level headed Lydia, who ascertains that another station, Hemmersby, is within five or six miles. The debate over staying in the security of the railcar, or heading out across country, is still being thrashed out by the others, when Maltby suddenly wishes all a Merry Christmas and dashes out into the now easing blizzard, on the trail of a dark shadow which has just emerged from an adjoining compartment. Jessie, not being able to imagine her future without her timely arrival in Manchester, finally provides the catalyst for David, Lydia, and Thomson, and soon all four younger members of the group are plodding across the field – minus the reluctant bore – following the footprints of Maltby, who is, in turn, following the footsteps of that other unknown refugee.
However, it soon becomes apparent that ‘The Great Snow’ is not yet ready to release it’s grip on these weary travellers! Now thoroughly lost with no retreat, an ill advised encounter with a hidden ditch sends them all for a tumble, leaving Jessie in a deep faint, but hope briefly resurges, when the pale clerk discovers a gate. David bravely lugs the slumbering Jessie through the now blinding blizzard, overcoming minor avalanches and several snowy pitfalls, before the situation becomes quite dire – just as they wash up on the doorstep of a large residence. There is no answer to their knocks or shouts, but the door is unlocked, and they are passed the point where one respects all the niceties. They usher themselves into a large hall, with a roaring fire in the hearth, and a commanding picture of a rather stern looking host hanging directly over the mantle. David lowers the still insensate Jessie on to the couch, while Lydia checks the kitchen for some evidence of life, only to discover a kettle boiling on the hob, and all the goodies laid out for tea, though no sign of any human presence. Firmly caught between a sense of adventure, and a mild fear of trespassing with good cause, these refugees from the elemental battle, gradually begin to make themselves comfortable.
Yet, old man fate is still not done with his games – not by a long shot! Thomson, who spends his life daydreaming about rescuing ladies in distress from air crashes, is rapidly developing a fever, and losing what little contact with reality he ever possessed, while Jessie, once awakened, reveals that she has suffered a badly twisted ankle. The inexplicable mystery of an empty house in the middle of a blizzard, begins to look even more sinister, when they discover a bread knife on the kitchen floor and David hears an odd noise behind a locked attic door, but with two of the party on the injured list, and the storm once again ramping up, they really have little choice in the matter – they are well and truly snowbound!
David soon returns to the attic, to discover that the door is now unlocked and the room vacant, just before Maltby arrives, accompanied by a rather large figure with a nasty look and a cockney ring to his voice, who proclaims himself to be “Smith”. Though a latecomer, it is Maltby who now assumes command of the stranded Christmas Eve refugees, dryly noting that all the elements of a good murder are present – except the corpse! As his story gradually unfolds, they learn that he first encountered Smith just outside their warm refuge. Smith claims to have been “jest walking” and know nothing of trains, despite a ticket he drops on the floor. All are relieved when he finally makes his excuses and heads back out into the blizzard – just as they hear a nearby cry for help from a frozen bore. Hopkins is no longer in the pink of health. He is in a state of sheer panic, with crocodile tears frozen to his cheeks, and is suffering from severe hypothermia – despite his old adventures in Dawson City! Once he finally begins to thaw, another piece of this odd puzzle emerges. A dead body has been found on the train, strangled to death in a nearby compartment, forcing the cowardly bore to flee “another hell”.
The group are finally “dried and rubbed down” and a severely feverish Thomson has been packed off to bed, before David can finish telling Maltby about the attic. Malty confirms that Smith was in deed on the train, and that he fled from the compartment where the murder occurred, leaving a wave of disrupted emotional energy in his wake – which explains Maltby’s abrupt departure. He also believes that Smith was actually the first to reach the house, still hiding in the attic when the other refugees arrived, before escaping through a window, then latching on to Maltby and returning via the front door to check out the company.
However, they are not yet done with Smith. The blizzard proves impassable, and he soon returns with a renewed interest in looking around upstairs, a desire which is consciously blocked by David and Maltby, and more intuitively by Lydia and Hopkins. Despite all the recent disasters, Lydia remains adamantly determined to celebrate a proper Christmas, and begins by fixing a dinner of salmon and pineapple, which is carried up to the invalids, while the others gather around the table to eat, including the rude and aggressive Smith, who soon picks a fight with the argumentative Hopkins. The bore unwisely accuses him of the murder aboard the train, and nearly meets the same fate, before David and Maltby can drag Smith clear, though they cannot hold the powerful man for long, and he soon takes a preplanned exit from the kitchen window.
Only now does Maltby finally share the three pieces of evidence he has gathered, which together tell two deadly stories; one of Smith’s deadly crime, the other a less complete tale of one Charles Shaw, caretaker of their current domicile, who was apparently expecting visitors this Christmas Eve, before something went horribly wrong – leading to another body in the snow, which Maltby had first assumed to be a log. However, the full tale only emerges after David goes back out into the snow. He finds the body Maltby tumbled over hours earlier, and a confusing series of footprints in the snow, before finally encountering a car that has slid into a ditch, carrying a young beauty named Nora Strange, and her frail father, the owner of Valley House, their temporary residence. Mr. Strange had also become completely lost, as this is his first return to the house in 20 years, to the very day, since another very sad Christmas Eve in 1917.
No further will I go, though this story charges forward like an out of control bobsled. It must suffice to note that the surprises are only beginning in an intricate tale that takes control of the refugee’s Christmas Eve, as they are all dragged into a desperate struggle to exorcise the spirit of an evil Christmas past, which still resonates throughout the house, especially in the sensitive Maltby, and the all too prescient Jessie, who nearly becomes a victim of all that ancient angst and terror.
This novel is nothing short of a Shakespearean experience, and like ‘The Tempest’ it so resembles, it is neither truly tragedy nor comedy, but a genre completely of its own making. There can be no doubt that Maltby is the magical sorcerer Prospero, and Nora, an innocent Miranda, set adrift on the sea of life by a dark past, while David and Lydia play obliging spirits. All are to some extent transformed by this blinding sea change in white. Jessie finds new hope for the future, and even Hopkins emerges a bit more sympathetic, though the boring basement office life of Thomson is barely interrupted, as he passes this night of real adventure, in a feverish delirium, still rescuing imaginary damsels from equally imaginary plane crashes.
There is also a parallel theme which concerns the nature of time, written in the halcyon days of modern physics, when all seemed possible. Once again, Maltby takes the stage, but this time he harnesses logic and science, to explain how a gramophone or photograph is our first step towards recording the past – just as a similar process imprints our emotions on an energized universe. He is the new magician of a world where science will never entirely trump mystery, leaving us still gazing in awe at a universe where the moon mysteriously pulls the tides, and time and space become one single dimension. Ghosts can have no reality apart from our senses, in such an order, yet our world of perception is now a unified whole that links us all – past and present – and demands that justice be part of this eternal equation.
Whether as logician or magician, the task of this Prospero is therefore to uncover the truth, and lead those who have landed on this isle in the midst of the tempest to redemption, and Maltby fulfills this role in an admirable fashion. Farjeon never for a moment allows his character to finally separate spirit and matter, instead leaving an intentional panpsychic ambiguity that celebrates our human need for mystery, as well as our desire to tame a superstitious world. Seldom have I seen these types of literary themes so well handled inside the mystery genre format, making this a truly remarkable read.
So how do we rate this eighty year old novel that was the surprise bestseller last Christmas? Purely as an impossible crime or locked room novel, it really does not make the grade, and it is also not much of a whodunit, but as a unique addition to the genre, that quite simply defies all classification, it is an amazing masterpiece! If you are looking for a traditional locked room or a classic country house murder, give it a pass – but if you want to try something just a bit different, this is nothing short of a five star classic! I loved it!
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