Friday, December 30, 2022

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?" 

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