Classic Crime

J. Jefferson Farjeon

Joseph Jefferson Farjeon was born 4 June 1883 was an English crime and mystery novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Farjeon was the grandson of the American actor Joseph Jefferson, after whom he was named. His parents were Jefferson's daughter Maggie and Benjamin Farjeon (1838–1903), a prolific Victorian novelist.

One of Farjeon's best known works was a play, ‘Number 17’, which was made into a number of films, including Number Seventeen (1932) directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Farjeon's crime novels were admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, who called him "unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures."

Most of Farjeon's works have been forgotten, but the figure of Ben in ‘Number 17’ appeared again in a string of novels, including ‘Ben on the Job’. Farjeon died on the 6th June 1955.

His work has mainly fallen out of print but the British Library Crime Classics have recently re-issued this title.

Review: Mystery In White

This mystery starts in a crowded carriage on a train that has become snowbound just after leaving Euston station. It is Christmas Eve and many are desperate to reach their destination in time for the festive celebrations. The talk is of the paranormal when suddenly the elderly gentlemen known as Maltby quickly gets up, collects his coat and case and sets off in to the driving snow. Believing they should also take their chances, the three youngest in the carriage make their way across the snow laden landscape. They get lost and after what feels like an epic journey, they reach a secluded house. The lights are on, the fires are burning and tea is ready to be served. But no one is at home.

Soon the three are joined by others from the same carriage and so begins an evening of mystery and intrigue with a dash of the supernatural.

As always, the British Library Crime Classics are to be applauded for bringing alive forgotten classics to people like myself who hadn’t known of Farjeon until now. It is strange how authors who were loved and revered in their day are now unknown. As with all things, writers and their work are like fashion; sometimes you’re this season’s sensation, next year you’re stuffed to the back of the wardrobe.

As with Christie, Farjeon appears to be more involved in plot rather than characterisation. The dialogue is quirky and did sound very old-fashioned which I guess is why Farjeon’s books became forgotten. At times I did feel I was watching a black and white film from the Ealing studios. Again, as with Brandon’s ‘A Scream in Soho’, we have Farjeon writing phonetically a character from the East End. Thankfully, halfway he disappears, leaving all those with cut glass accents to concentrate on!

‘Mystery in White’ is a strange beast. While I did find the book hugely enjoyable there were also lapses where not much happened, but strangely I was still compelled to continue reading. To me that is a sign of a good writer. This book very much reminded me of Gladys Mitchell – the whole thing felt as though thrown up in the air and Farjeon made a story wherever the pieces fell. Don’t think me being derogatory saying that – in a way it is good as you never know what you are going to be served here. You expect a clear-cut detective mystery at the beginning, but by the time all have gathered at the isolated house, things have shifted and you get a dash of the supernatural alongside a ripping thrilling yarn that involves an covered up crime and hidden money.

I apologise if I have baffled you, but this is one of those stories that simply refuses to be pinned down. What Farjeon does brilliantly is set the scene and marvellously creates a chilling atmosphere of unease as these strangers settle in to an abandoned house which is obviously inhabited as they slowly get buried beneath the snow outside. This may feel very dated to some but it was written in 1937 when it was all about the thrill of the chase for the truth rather than being introspective. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. Treat yourself to a copy this Christmas and be thankful you’re not trapped in an empty house in a snowdrift!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating