Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

A ‘creepy’ Christmas story with all the classic festive ingredients

John Jefferson Farjeon was a journalist who went on to be a successful novelist
John Jefferson Farjeon was a journalist who
went on to be a successful novelist
When a group of passengers trapped on a snowbound train on Christmas Eve decide to take their chances in the ‘curtain of whirling white’ to try to find shelter, the scene is set for an intriguing seasonal mystery.

No one answers the bell at the first house they find, but when they try the door handle it turns and they stumble inside with relief. The fires are lit, the table is set for tea, but surprisingly there is nobody at home.

It is obvious the occupants would not have ventured out in such extreme weather conditions unless there had been an emergency and the house has clearly been prepared for guests, so despite uncomfortable feelings of guilt, the train travellers warm themselves by the fire, eat the tea that has been prepared and set out to solve the mystery.

The main sleuthing brain belongs to an elderly gentleman, Mr Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who uses a mixture of reasoned logic and psychic intuition to try to work out what has happened to the occupants of the house.

He is ably assisted by a bright young man, David Carrington and his cheerful sister, Lydia, who has practical skills. A chorus girl, Jessie, who has fallen in the snow and sprained her ankle, a young clerk called Thomson who succumbs to ‘flu, Hopkins, an elderly bore, and Smith, a rough man who turns out to be a criminal, complete the Christmas house party.

A Mystery in White is a published as a British Library Crime Classic
Mystery in White is published as
a British Library Crime Classic
The author of Mystery in White, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, was a crime and mystery novelist, playwright, and screen writer. Born in 1883, Farjeon worked for ten years for Amalgamated Press in London before going freelance. He went on to become the author of more than 60 crime and mystery novels, short story collections and plays.

He was a major figure during the Golden Age of murder mysteries between the two world wars and Dorothy L Sayers praised him for being ‘quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.’

Farjeon was named after his maternal grandfather, Joseph Jefferson, who was an American actor. His father, Benjamin Farjeon, was a successful novelist, one of his brothers was a composer, another a drama critic and director, and his sister, Eleanor Farjeon, wrote poems, including the words for the hymn, Morning Has Broken.

Originally published in 1937, Mystery in White was republished as a British Library Crime Classic in 2014. Like most Golden Age mysteries, it has a satisfying, logical conclusion, brought about by the deductive powers of Mr Maltby and the heroics of David.

At the end of the story, the police inspector, who manages to reach the house on Christmas Day, remarks to his sergeant: “Four murders in a dozen hours! I reckon I’ve earned my bit of turkey.”

When the owners of the house return they are happy to forgive the intrusion by the party from the train. As Lydia had said earlier to the chorus girl, Jessie: “Suppose this house belonged to you and you returned to it after the world’s worst snowstorm, would you rather find your larder empty or seven skeletons?" 

Buy Mystery in White from or   





Christmas in Italy

A Christmas tree in Rome's Piazza Venezia is one of the city's familiar festive sights
A Christmas tree in Rome's Piazza Venezia is one
of the city's familiar festive sights
If you are a food lover, Italy is one of the best places to visit at Christmas, because the focus is firmly on the feasting, whichever region you choose to stay in.

On la Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve), a fish meal is traditionally consumed consisting of several different courses, after which the adults who are still able to move may go to midnight mass.

But Natale (Christmas Day) is the time for the serious feasting to start. While the children open their presents, the adults savour a glass of good prosecco or uncork a special vintage bottle to enjoy while they prepare the festive table.

Friends and relatives who drop in with presents, or to exchange good wishes, will be offered nuts, biscuits and torrone (nougat made in the city of Cremona in Lombardy.)

The antipasto course served at the beginning of the meal is likely to include Parma ham or bresaola - dried, cured beef - with preserved mushrooms, olives, and pickled vegetables.

Stuffed pasta is usually served as a primo piatto, first course, either in the shape of ravioli or tortellini, which originated in Emilia Romagna. This shape of pasta is said to have been inspired by a beautiful woman who was staying at an inn in the region. The innkeeper is reputed to have tried to spy on her through a keyhole but all he could see was her navel.

Panettone is a traditional part of the Italian family table at Christmas
Panettone is a traditional part of the Italian
family table at Christmas
Tortellini in brodo, traditionally served in capon broth, remains a classic Christmas day dish in Italy.

For the main course, turkey or capon is likely to be served with potatoes and vegetables as side dishes.

The traditional end to the meal is almost always panettone, served warm, accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine.

Italian folklore has it that panettone was concocted by a Milanese baker, Antonio (Toni), to impress his girlfriend one Christmas in the 15th century. The result was so successful that ‘Pane de Toni’ has become a regular feature of the Christmas season all over Italy and now even abroad.

The feasting and family parties continue on 26 December, the festa di Santo Stefano (Boxing Day).

A Happy Christmas and Buon Natale to all my readers.



Tenant for Death by Cyril Hare

Inspector Mallett joins the ranks of fictional detectives who like a good lunch

Tenant for Death is published by Faber and Faber
Tenant for Death is published
by Faber and Faber
When two young estate agent’s clerks are sent to check an inventory on a house in South Kensington they find the dead body of a man on the premises, an item that was definitely not on their list.

Tenant for Death, published in 1937, is the first crime novel written by the detective novelist Cyril Hare, and it introduces his series sleuth, the formidable Inspector Mallett of Scotland Yard.

Set in the world of high finance as it was in the 1930s, Tenant for Death is ‘an ingenious story’ to use the words of the Times Literary Supplement review. It provides Mallett with a difficult and puzzling mystery to solve and establishes the Inspector as a thinking detective with a love of good food.

The murder victim turns out to be a businessman who had a lot of enemies. The police spend a great deal of time trying to establish the identity of the mysterious man who has rented the house where the body has been found and we do not find out who he really was and what has become of him until the last pages of the book.

Some of the suspects are extremely plausible characters in their own right and the reader can feel varying degrees of sympathy for them.

The author shows his detailed knowledge of the legal district of London as we follow Mallett along its streets and through its alleyways. I thought Tenant for Death was very well written and an interesting story, considering it was Hare’s first published detective novel.

Cyril Hare was, in fact, the pen name for Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in 1900 in Mickleham in Surrey and became a barrister and a judge.

Cyril Hare was a psuedonym for the barrister Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark
Cyril Hare was a psuedonym for the
barrister Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark

The writer’s pseudonym was derived from a mixture of Hare Court, where he was in chambers as a barrister in London, and Cyril Mansions, where he lived.

Hare also wrote many short stories for the London Evening Standard and some radio and stage plays and he was a keen member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many other famous crime writers.

After the war, Hare - as Clark - was appointed a county court judge in Surrey. He died in 1958, when he was at the peak of his career as a judge and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunnit.

In 1990, when the British Crime Writers’ Association published their list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, they awarded the 85th place to Hare’s 1942 novel, Tragedy at Law, which is considered by many to be his best work.

Although I enjoyed Tragedy at Law when I reviewed it for this website, I actually preferred Tenant for Death, finding it a more compelling story with well-drawn characters and a very clever ending.

Buy Tenant for Death from or