Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon

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Reviewed by Harriet

Every station has its special voice. Some are of grit. Some are of sand. Some are of milk cans. Some are of rock muffled by tunnel smoke. Whatever the voice, it speaks to those who know it, sounding a name without pronouncing it; but those who do not know it drowse on, for to them it brings no message, and is merely a noise unilluminated by personal tradition.

This is the opening paragraph of Thirteen Guests, and has very little to do with the plot at all, apart from the fact that the story does begin with some people arriving by train to spend the weekend at Bragley Court, home to Lord and Lady Aveling. But I quote it here because it shows you what a fascinating and unusual writer Farjeon was. First published in 1936, the year before Farjeon’s Mystery in White [reviewed here], which became massively popular last winter when it was re-published in a British Library Crime Classics edition (and which also begins at a railway station), this is a classic ‘country house’ mystery. And of course, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, a country house mystery is also a ‘closed circle’ mystery, since the number of suspects is naturally limited by the number of guests at the house. In this instance there are thirteen of them, an unlucky number, and sure enough more than one of them is dead before we’ve got all that far into the novel.

I very much enjoyed Mystery in White, but I must tell you that this is in many ways a superior novel, or at least a more complex one, both in terms of plot and characterisation. As far as the plot is concerned, there are, eventually, three deaths – but if you don’t care for blood and violence, fear not, as these don’t figure at all. In fact in many ways the deaths seem almost incidental to everything else that’s going on here. Other mysteries abound, including who defaced the portrait of Lord Aveling’s daughter, why the blue glass water jug was deliberately smashed, who the stranger at the station was (and why the pretty actress reacted so badly to his appearance), why the famous cricketer hid the hip flask in his dressing table drawer… Well, you get the idea.

As for the characters, you could hardly hope to find a more varied and interesting bunch. In addition to the Earl, his daughter Anne, the actress and the cricketer, you’ve also got Pratt, the celebrated society portraitist (he whose painting was defaced) and his friend Bultin, a brilliant, cynical journalist. Then there’s Mr Rowe, a ‘sausage king’, visiting with his wife and daughter; Sir James Earnshaw, a liberal MP; the great detective novelist Miss Edyth Fermoy-Jones; Mr and Mrs Chater, a very dodgy couple who nobody likes; and last but by no means least, a lovely young widow, Nadine, who ‘had the beauty that drugs’. And of course there’s that thirteenth guest, a young man called John Foss, who is laid up on a sofa throughout, having had an accident at the station and been rescued and brought to Bagley Court by Nadine. He’s a bit of a mystery too, to start with anyway, but luckily (as he’s so likeable) absolutely not a suspect because he can’t walk.

Of course everybody interacts with everybody else in various complicated ways, and most people prove to have secrets. The Earl is completely besotted with the actress, who wants him to put up some money for a play, but he’s worried, as he’s never committed adultery before and is really quite fond of his wife. Anne is obviously in love with the cricketer but her father isn’t so keen on the match. I did wonder if Pratt and Bultin were a couple, but this is never spelled out. Above all, though, it’s the relationship between Nadine and John Foss that gives this book its charm, or at least it was for me. Here are a couple of slightly battered people (unhappy pasts, I mean) who are ridiculously drawn to each other right from the moment they meet. They know nothing about each other, but slowly, in snatched conversations when Nadine can escape from the throng, they get fonder and fonder. I’m not talking about lovey dovey stuff here, though that’s clearly the subtext – just two intelligent and perceptive people talking about life in general, with a great deal of wit and charm into the bargain. People just don’t write like this any more, or not enough, anyway.

Well, you can see that I liked and admired this novel tremendously. I haven’t even mentioned the detecive, Kendall, and his amazing powers of reasoning and deduction, through which anything you may have thought might have explained the puzzling events is completely thrown out of the window. I didn’t have the first idea how it all might end up being elucidated, and frankly I didn’t care. I can’t wait for more of Farjeon – hope the British Library is listening!

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

J. Jefferson Farjeon, Thirteen Guests (British Library: London, 2015). 9780712356015, 256pp., paperback.

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