Reviewed by Harriet
Love reprints? Looking for the perfect Christmas story? Look no further. The British Library Crime Classics have excelled themselves with this delightfully lively and tantalising novel, which was first published in 1937. You may not have heard of J. Jefferson Farjeon, but he was a very well known figure in mid-twentieth-century crime writing. Dorothy Sayers called him quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The story starts on Christmas Eve. A terrific blizzard has brought a train to a halt, with no prospect of its getting started any time in the foreseeable future. In one of the carriages is an assortment of people quite unknown to each other. There’s an elderly bore, Mr Hobson, who has his eye on the attractive chorus girl Jessie Noyes (a real diehard platinum blonde), a young brother and sister David and Lydia Carrington, shy clerk Mr Thomson, and finally Edward Maltby, who turns out to be a psychic investigator. As the chance of the train getting going becomes more and more remote, the trapped passengers agree to leave the carriage and head for the nearby village. But visibility is almost nil, and after a challenging journey on foot through deep snow, they find themselves outside a welcoming-looking country house whose front door turns out to be open. Inside, tea is laid, a large wood fire blazes in the grate, the larder is full of food, but an exploration of the house soon reveals that there is nobody at home. As the conditions outside are worsening, to leave seems out of the question, so the party decides to make use of the food and shelter and offer to pay the mysterious owner whenever he or she turns up.
After this delightfully intriguing start, things get more and more puzzling for the trapped visitors. A murder turns out to have taken place on the train, and later another body is discovered in the snow. A peculiar cockney, Mr Smith, keeps popping up, disappearing, popping up again. Various people try to get out and look for help, but are always driven back by the snow. Mr Thompson falls ill and starts hallucinating, and Jessie Noyes appears to have some kind of innate psychic sensitivity and seems to be picking up evidence that one or more horrid crimes have been committed in the house. Maltby, whose stock in trade this is, finds her intuitions entirely believable, and indeed the solution to the puzzle, and to the murders, does seem to demand some kind of supernatural explanation. Or does it? This is not exactly a ghost story, but there certainly is a rather creepy element to the whole story, though it’s handled lightly and left up to the reader to decide.
Indeed the whole story is handled lightly, with lots of wit and plenty of superb observation of the charmingly ill-assorted characters. The Carringtons really take centre stage – David mostly trying to work out the truth behind the peculiar happenings, Lydia attempting to keep everybody happy, warm and well fed. But I thought Jessie particularly well observed, with a great deal of sympathy for her dreary life and her struggles with employment and money:
Jessie lay back on her pillow for a while and stared at the canopy of faded pink above her. She had never lain in a four-poster bed before, and she found the sensation rather singular. At first it was pleasant. She felt herself sinking back into an easy, amiable past, where the fight for bread-and-butter – often so sordid a fight – did not exist. The snow dissolved with the years. Outside was sunny country; inside, slow movement and ease.
So there’s an element of fantasy here, but nicely mixed with an acknowledgement that life is not always going to turn out the way we hoped it might, something that’s particularly true for Jessie and for Thompson. Above all, it’s an exciting and intriguing story, and one you’d be well advised to read, or give away, over the Christmas period. Great fun, and highly recommended.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
J. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (British Library, London: 2014). 9780712357708, 256 pp., paperback.