Book Review: Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

mystery in WhiteOn Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

Received as a Christmas present in 2014.  Published by the British Library (@BL_Publishing) this is one of a set of Golden age Crime novels that have disappeared off people’s radars but republished by the British Library

A few years before WWII, a train full of people are making their way to various places one Christmas Eve, to celebrate Christmas day with various friends and relations.  Their plans are delayed somewhat when an extraordinarily heavy snow brings the train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby.

In one carriage a group of passengers, previously unknown to one another strike up a conversation. David and Lydia Carrington (brother and sister); Jessie Noyes, a chorus girl; Thomson, a young clerk; Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society;

With no indication that the train would be moving in the immediate future, and having been bored beyond endurance by Mr Hopkins the bore, the group are considering leaving the train to walk to the village. However when Mr Maltby, apparently spotting someone or something outside, takes off after it with barely a word to the others, those that are left behind, are intrigued by his sudden departure, and not wanting to be left behind with the bore, leave the train behind and take off after Mr Maltby.

In such conditions, it is virtually impossible for anyone to find their way. Jessie twists her ankle on the rough terrain and it is soon clear that the 5 of them (Jessie, the Carringtons and Thomson) are in desperate need of shelter.  They are in luck in that they literally stumble across a house.

Out of the appalling weather, however, things are still not all that it seems. The door is open, fires are burning in several rooms, a kettle boiling, tea laid, a bread knife lying on the floor. However – there’s no one at home.

Reluctantly the four decide to avail themselves of the facilities and begin to settle themselves in and wait the storm out.  Jessie is taken upstairs to a nicely furnished room and settled on the bed to rest her ankle. Thomson quickly develops a raging temperature and is likewise put to bed in another room.

Exploring upstairs in an attempt to find out what’s happened to the missing residents, David comes across a locked door behind which he is sure he can hear a muffled noise. When he returns to the room later, the door is unlocked, the room apparently empty. As the five interlopers are settling down to partake of the tea and provisions left out, they are soon joined by Mr Maltby driven in by the snow, and he brings a stranger with him.

Smith, the new creature, is a rough Cockney, nervous about something, and able to take offence at anything said to him, which leads to some tense and difficult conversations. No one knows where he has come from, and where he was going in the snowstorm, and he refuses to provide any information. He does seem to have a desire to head towards the now unlocked and empty attic. Things only become more unsettled when Mr Hopkins – previously left behind on the train – arrives at the house and brings with him a tale that brings a new sinister turn to the proceedings.

Meanwhile Jessie is recuperating in one of the bedrooms upstairs but is unsettled by something in the room – she keeps feeling a strange weight pressing down on her. Even when she moves to a sitting in a chair, this doesn’t always alleviate the issue.

Now the house is full, people are fed and dry, it’s now time to investigate what happened to the owners, and why the house was set up for tea but left abandoned. In doing this, there’s a chance to settle a 20 year old mystery and right some apparent wrongs.

David has been marked as the action hero of the book – going outside in the blizzard in an attempt to find out the source of a scream and what happened to Smith after he runs out of the house after one too many arguments.

Maltby as the thinker and the solver and is eccentric enough (his deductive skills are due in no small part to the belief he can see psychic energy footprints where high emotion has left a mark) to be effective.

Hopkins is one of those men who suspect they are inferior to others (generally they are), can’t understand why but lashes out when other people seem to prove his inferiority. He makes Jessie nervous when he’s around, especially when it’s just the two of them – she suspects he’s taken a fancy to her and doesn’t know how to deal with things if he makes an unfortunate play for her. The others have picked up on it and when he tries to be useful (such as bringing her some food) others prevent him from doing so, but he can’t understand why and the others are too polite to tell him, which leads to some angry outbursts.

I think a couple of characters in here are underused – Thomson barely shoves his head over the parapet and is sketched in the lightest of strokes. Jessie is filled out a bit better but she and Lydia are soon relegated to the “staying upstairs and kept in the dark” (after Lydia has proved the efficiency of women by ensuring the group have dinner). Maltby takes a parental shine to Jessie however after he finds out her reaction to the bedroom.

There are some moments of excitement, e.g. during the dinner when Hopkins has arrived and believes he’s recognised the source of the problems he thought had been left behind on the train. However, there are also moments of tedium – I hope done on purpose, which can lead to a certain level of glazing of eyes.

Classes as a “Christmas” story, there is little to do with Christmas, bar the snow and the occasional reference to the time of year. I, therefore, think this could be read pretty much any time of the year!

About this author

Joseph Jefferson Farjeon was always going to be a writer as, born in London, he was the son of Benjamin Farjeon who at the time was a well-known novelist whose other children were Eleanor Farjeon, who became a children’s writer, and Herbert Farjeon, who became a playwright and who wrote the well-respected ‘A Cricket Bag’.

 

 

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