Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mystery in White : a Christmas Crime Story - J Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White is another in the terrific series of Golden Age mysteries that the British Library are reprinting. Appropriately for the time of year, it's set at Christmas & is a very clever variation on the locked room mystery.

A group of travelers are caught on a snowbound train on Christmas Eve. Lydia Carrington & her brother David are on their way to stay with friends, Jessie Noyes is a chorus girl going to Manchester for a job, elderly Mr Edward Maltby is a psychic researcher investigating a possible sighting of the ghost of Charles I. There's also a timid clerk, Thomson, who likes to fantasise about rescuing maidens in distress & a bore (later we discover his name is Hopkins) who has a story for every occasion, always with himself as hero.

As the storm worsens & there seems no likelihood of the train moving, the group discuss their options - to stay put or to try to reach another station & take a train from there. Suddenly Mr Maltby takes off after seeing a man running from the train. eventually, the others, except Hopkins, decide to follow him, concerned for his welfare & also hoping to complete their journeys. After losing their way & Jessie twisting her ankle, they stumble upon a house. The door is unlocked, fires are lit, the kettle's boiling & tea has been set. However, there's no one home.

Hopkins, who brings news of the murder of a man in the next compartment to theirs on the train & Maltby, who has lost sight of the man he was pursuing, soon join the group. They decide to make the best of it & hope the owners of the house will be understanding when they return. However, the empty house has an uncanny atmosphere & the arrival of a menacing Cockney who says his name is Smith, doesn't exactly lighten the mood. Jessie seems to be receptive to the strange atmosphere of the house & is frightened by a chair in the dining room & the bed she is put into. David & Mr Maltby try to find some clue to the disappearance of the owners but everything they discover only deepens the mystery.

"Nothing explains anything! If it were a fine day it might be quite natural to run out of a house for a few moments while a kettle's boiling, but in this weather - can you explain that? Where have they gone? Not to post a letter or to cut a lettuce! Why don't they come back? I didn't tell you, the kettle wasn't boiling in a nice respectable manner, it was boiling over. Oh, and there was a bread-knife on the floor."

Mystery in White is an atmospheric mystery that is very hard to put down once started. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the house with the snow falling & the menace within is exceptionally well done. I don't find it at all hard to believe that it's been a surprise bestseller. The mystery is ingenious, reaching back twenty years into the past & involves several murders & family secrets. The characters are interestingly varied & there are moments of real tension as David & Maltby test their theories about the mystery of the abandoned house.

10 comments:

  1. This sounds excellent! I love mysteries set around Christmas, and the settings for this one - both the train and the house - seem full of possibilities. I will be looking for a copy.

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    1. I'd hoped to read it before Christmas but I don't know that it really mattered. It's a great version of the locked room mystery & any time of year is a good time to read a good mystery.

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  2. and by some strange natural power I had to buy it friends to keep it company whilst it was waiting to be read...."Death on the Cherwell", "The Wedding Chest Mystery","The White Cottage Mystery" (M.Allingham) and last but not least Ellis Peters "A Morbid Taste for Bones" which is 1.99 at B&N today
    ...Now see what you started......lol

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    1. DOTC is very good & I read all Ellis Peters Cadfael books years ago. I've read a lot of Allingham but I also have TWCM on my Kindle - unread, of course! I don't see why I'm to blame though...

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    2. For temptingly describing new (to me) books of course !....(and it's meant as a compliment not an insult) it's just a good job they are not fattening. ..I too have quite a few Ellis Peters including a paper copy of A Morbid taste for bones...and thinking about it ...I also have a reading I think and the BBC radio dramatization....is that sad? A good friend's Mother introduced me to her work also to Tey and Mary Stewart ..she had lovely taste in books. In spite of the fact that I was born in Shrewsbury I hadn't heard of her work ..so on reflection it was quite a while ago.

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    3. Have you seen the Derek Jacobi TV series of Cadfael? I thought they were quite good. Yes, just as well books aren't fattening although, of course, if we sit around reading when we should be exercising, they could lead to fat. Still, we won't think about that!

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  3. I really enjoyed this, too. There's something equally cozy and yet scary about being snowed in deep in the country. Have you read any of his other mysteries? I wonder if they're as good. I'm on the lookout for them now but I think they'll be difficult to find unless the British Library reprints more.

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    1. Yes, I thought it was very suspenseful & the isolation made it even more tense. I haven't read anything else by JJF but I hope the BL decide to reprint more.

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  4. Must read this. It sounds just up my street.

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