The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

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Reviewed by Harriet

Golden Age crime has always been popular, and each of the so-called queens – Sayers, Christie, Allingham, March, Tey – has her loyal followers. But in the last few years there’s been a positive explosion of reprints of novels by little known or forgotten crime writers of the Golden Age period (roughly the 1920s to 1950s). Publishers large and small have made valuable contributions, none more so than the British Library, whose Crime Classics series has proved extraordinarily popular. And indeed their standout best seller, Mystery in White, published about a year ago, was by the previously forgotten J. Jefferson Farjeon, also the author of The Z Murders. I think I’ve read almost all the Crime Classics series, and very enjoyable they’ve all been, but in my opinion Farjeon stands out as a particularly brilliant novelist. I reviewed his Thirteen Guests two months ago, and said at the end of that review that I couldn’t wait for more of Farjeon – so luckily I hardly had to wait any time at all.

The Z Murders begins on a train (as indeed do Mystery in White and Thirteen Guests). Here is it the overnight train from Glasgow, on which is Richard Temperley, returning home after a visit to a relative in Lancashire. The train arrives at Euston at 5 am, into ‘the London of the cold grey hour…in its period of transition it has nothing to offer you’. Exhausted by a sleepless night caused by the snoring of the other man in his compartment, Temperley takes the advice of a porter and checks into a nearby hotel where he will be able to sleep in an armchair, have a bath and some breakfast. But before he can do any of these things, a recently dead body turns up in the smoking room – and it’s the body of the snoring man on the train. As Temperley enters the room to investigate, an astonishingly beautiful young woman is leaving it, apparently in a state of great distress. The only clue the police can find, and a very puzzling one, is a small red letter Z, left near the scene. There is another clue, but Temperley finds that himself – it’s a small handbag, obviously left by the departing woman, which happens to have her address and her front door key inside it. Rather than handing these over to the police, Temperley decides to do some investigating of his own.

Sylvia Wynne, for such is her name, proves to be as beautiful as her first brief appearance suggested, but also as confused, distressed, and unwilling to share her anxieties with Temperley, who has fallen for her like a ton of bricks. With the police in hot pursuit, the two of them – either singly or together – start to dash around the country, first to Bristol, then to Boston in Lincolnshire, then to Shropshire. Other murders take place, and each time the mysterious letter Z is left at the scene. Suspicious characters pop up all over the place, chief among them a man dressed as a countryman, a monacled toff, and a very scary person who seems not to have any arms. Towards the end of the novel we suddenly find ourselves in a car with the two chief suspects, whose conversation reveals a great deal, though not everything, about the crimes that have been committed and the ones planned for the future.

This is an exciting novel with a fast-paced and well-constructed plot. But there’s more to Farjeon than just good plotting. He’s a writer of great intelligence, wit and perceptiveness, and his novels are as enjoyable for his characters and their relationships as they are for the thrills of the mystery itself. Temperley and Sylvia have great charm, and it’s a pleasure to witness their delicately burgeoning relationship. But the police have the best characters – Dutton, a master of disguise, supremely skilled in the art of following a suspect, and capable of producing superbly detailed, multi-coloured notes, which go far to providing the solution to the mystery, and his boss Inspector James, of whom Temperley perceptively observes:

This was no ordinary official. The Inspector was a human being struggling through a queer and difficult world side by side with other human beings, and conscientiously carrying out his particular job. Relentless in his duty, perhaps, but sympathetic behind the relentlessness.

Farjeon apparently wrote no fewer than sixty crime novels, so it seems likely that we haven’t seen the last of him. This one, as with all the Crime Classics series up to now, comes with an informative introduction by that expert on all things Golden Age, Martin Edwards. Excellent stuff and highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

J Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders (British Library, 2015). 978-0712356213, 256pp., paperback.

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