Mystery in White
J. Jefferson Farjeon
First published in the UK, 1937, Wright and Brown
This edition: British Library, 2014
Source: Review copy from the British Library – thanks.
The Great Snow began on the evening of December 19th.
The Mystery in White opens on a snowbound train trapped somewhere north of Euston on Christmas Eve. With no rescue imminent, and their various festive appointments to reach, the occupants of one of the carriages decide to make a break for it and head out on foot.
The party forms a cross-section of ’30s society: cheery chorus girl Jessie Noyes; ex-colonial bore Mr Hopkins; aspirational clerk Robert Thomson ‘without a p’; brother and sister David and Lydia Carrington; and Sir Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society. From the start it’s clear that one of Farjeon’s strengths as a writer was the ability to introduce his cast and keep the conversation going.
Stumbling through a dense snowstorm, the party finally manages to find a country house in which to shelter. Curiously, the house is abandoned, but the fires are lit and the kettle is on. A room upstairs is locked on first inspection, and then found to be unlocked later. A knife lies suspiciously upon the kitchen floor. Despite their misgivings, the continuing snow leaves our adventurers no choice but to stay, so they settle in for a makeshift Christmas.
There is something sweetly Enid Blyton-esque about the house party. They are so concerned about using up the food in the house and sleeping in the beds that they keep detailed accounts and prepare written apologies. Things get very Famous Five with the appearance of Mr Smith, an eminently suspicious cockney, described several times as ‘common’.
… not a pleasant-looking object. His coarse rough suit was saturated with melting and melted snow, and his hair – he had no hat – streaked wetly down his low, lined forehead.
(I love ‘he had no hat’.)
It soon becomes clear that not only is there a mystery to be solved about the house, but also the more immediate matter of a murder victim left behind on the snowbound train they abandoned. Sir Edward Maltby, as the brains of the operation, takes charge, aided principally by David Carrington, who handles all the rough stuff.
There is plenty of priggish chivalry from the chaps:
‘I think we ought to try and get the women out of here,’ said David.
‘There is only one argument against that,’ answered Mr Maltby. ‘Its utter impossibility.’
Maltby can be a bit obnoxious, to be honest – ‘I have never seen a more pitiable example of lack of control and lack of intelligence,‘ he tells the slightly out-of-his-depth Mr Hopkins at one point – but it’s clear we are in a safe pair of hands as he gets to work.
Another element to the story is the supernatural. Maltby (of the Royal Psychical Society, remember) is not above using a spot of clairvoyance – or pretending to – to get to the bottom of things. This makes for a slightly silly denouement but doesn’t undermine the mystery.
All told, this is a tight and amusingly written story that I would recommend as a stocking filler. As usual the British Library have produced a high quality book which feels pleasant to hold and to read. Their series of Crime Classics is fulfilling its early promise of becoming a highly collectable set of paperbacks. I’m particularly looking forward to two short story collections next year, both edited by Martin Edwards: Resorting to Murder and Capital Crimes.