Friday, September 29, 2023

Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon

An intriguing mystery told with humour and well-drawn characters

The British Library edition of Farjeon's Thirteen Guests
The British Library edition of
Farjeon's Thirteen Guests 
Thirteen Guests is a traditional country house mystery, the type of story popular during the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, are still famous for their Golden Age novels and their books remain in print. However, many other good writers of the detective novel from this period have now been forgotten.

One crime writer the novelist Dorothy L Sayers particularly admired from the Golden Age was J Jefferson Farjeon, who she praised for his ‘creepy skill.’

She may have read Thirteen Guests, when it was first published in 1936, but few copies of the original book had remained in existence for the modern reader to enjoy until 2015, when, happily, the novel was rescued and republished by the British Library.

The story begins at a railway station where a young man, John Foss, falls from a train when leaving it and injures his foot.

He is recued by an attractive widow, Nadine Leveridge, who is on her way to a country house party. She takes the young man with her in the car that has been sent to pick her up by her host, Lord Aveling, to try to get medical help for him.

When they arrive at her destination, Bragley Court, the hospitable Lord Aveling welcomes Foss and offers him the chance to stay for the weekend while he recovers.

Lord Aveling is hosting a weekend house party for 12 people and therefore Foss is his 13th guest.

But because they arrive before two of the other guests, Mr and Mrs Chater, it is Mr Chater who is the last to enter the house and who becomes, technically, the 13th guest.

J Jefferson Farjeon worked for the Amalgamated Press before becoming a freelance writer
J Jefferson Farjeon worked for the Amalgamated
Press before becoming a freelance writer
Foss is not superstitious and he has been reassured by a fellow guest that the bad luck will come to the 13th guest who enters the house.

During the weekend a serious of bizarre things happen. A painting is damaged, a dog is killed, a stranger’s body is found in a quarry on Lord Aveling’s land and then one of the guests is found dead.

Foss observes all the comings and goings during the weekend and overhears snatches of people’s conversations as he lies, sometimes forgotten, recuperating on a settee in a side room. He is visited from time to time by Nadine and together they try to work out what is going on in the house, as the relationship between them blossoms.

Farjeon does not write cardboard characters and therefore the guests, who are also the suspects, are all interesting and depicted well. In one scene, an artist, and a journalist, who are sharing a bedroom, give as good as they get in an entertaining conversation with the investigating detective, Inspector Kendall, who is by no means cast as a plodding policeman.

We learn that the Detective Inspector moves from place to place when a district needs ‘gingering up.’ When he is introduced, he is having some amusing exchanges with his new subordinates as they make their way to Bragley Court to investigate.

The weekend guests include an MP, an actress, a cricketer, and a writer of mystery novels. They all have their own secrets and peculiarities, which Detective Inspector Kendall uncovers as he tries to get to the truth about what has happened.

Farjeon was a crime and mystery novelist, playwright, and screen writer. Born in 1883, he 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 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.

Although the plot of Thirteen Guests is far from straight forward, Farjeon plays fair with the reader and a credible solution to the mystery is unveiled at the end.

I enjoyed Thirteen Guests and would recommend it to other fans of country house mysteries.

So far, not all of Farjeon’s many novels have been republished, but I hope more of this author’s forgotten work will be rescued and made available for contemporary crime fiction fans to relish.  

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