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 is, it speaks to those who know it, sounding a name without pronouncing it […] The voice of Flensham station is gravelly.
The 3.28 deposits two passengers at Flensham. One is the beautiful – dangerous even – widow Nadine Leveridge. The other is a clubbable young chap named John Foss, who manages to fall out of the train onto the platform and badly sprain his ankle.
Being of the right sort (his uncle is in Debretts), and catching the unstoppable Nadine’s eye, Foss qualifies for a bit of R&R as an uninvited guest of Lord Aveling, who is hosting a country-house weekend at Bragley Court. He is allocated a make-shift bed in a side-room off the hall. His arrival brings the total number of guests to the ill-omened total of thirteen.
But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious lounge-hall that glowed in the late afternoon sun-shine and flickered in the light of an enormous log-fire. Something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets.
The thirteenth guest to arrive (destined for bad luck), is a Mr Chater, is a thoroughly bad egg, giving off a strong whiff of brooding and uneasy secrets until the inevitable happens.
But before that we meet a cast of characters including politicians, millionaires, and the Aveling family. The party is enlivened by the self-consciously superior presences of the satirical portraitist Leicester Pratt and his friend the gossip columnist Lionel Bultin. The action begins when Pratt’s current commission, a portrait of Lady Aveling, is mutilated by a person unknown. Later that night, the family’s dog is killed, evidently to keep it quiet. Then a stag hunt across the surrounding countryside ends in more than one death.
Bultin begins the investigation on his terms.
‘Tell me something, Lionel,’ [Pratt] said. ‘I’m just curious. If a man commits a murder, are you glad when he is hanged? If a man hasn’t committed a murder, do you rejoice when he’s acquitted? Or, provided you get a good story, don’t you care a damn?
Bultin thought for a moment.
‘Provided the public get a good story,’ he replied, ‘do they care a damn?’
Perhaps fortunately for the cause of justice, Bultin is supplanted by the police, who arrive in the form of Detective Inspector Kendall.
Kendall made no secret of the fact that he never did things by halves. He left nothing to chance – or so he boasted – and his methods, with which he permitted no interference from anybody, were almost blatantly complete… This is why he was moved from place to place when a district needed gingering up.
Kendall roars around gingering everybody up (Farjeon displays a touch of Golden Age originality by having his policeman offend the suspects and witnesses with his brusque approach to questioning) and wraps the mystery up quickly – to his own satisfaction at least.
So, a pure country house mystery with a closed circle of the usual suspects, but there is more than mystery here. Farjeon is interested in the relationships between his characters, and the treatment of romance in the book is possibly more sophisticated than in the works of most Golden Age chaps. Foss and Nadine fall in love at first sight, a trope rendered interesting by their differences in age (she is older), her self-confessed worldliness and the fact that he is on the rebound. More romance is the mid-life crisis attraction of Lord Aveling (married, never previously unfaithful) for the actress Zena Wilding. Meanwhile, the Avelings’ butler is unhappy in his jealous obsession with his girlfriend but just about able to control himself. The relationship between handsome young cricketer Taverley and the Avelings’ daughter Anne is more typical, although complicated by the fact she is being set up to marry the much older liberal peer Sir James Earnshaw.
A worthy successor to the British Library’s successful reissue of Mystery in White.
J. Jefferson Farjeon
First published in the UK by Collins, 1936
This edition, 2015, The British Library
Source: Review copy (thanks BL)
Final destination: A keeper