Having been globetrotting the world in my last few reviews (Norway, Japan and Brazil), I am now back on home soil with Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests (1936), one of the latest British Library reprints of Golden Age detective novels to be released. The title alludes to the superstition of the number 13 being unlucky and this particular novel raises the idea that the 13th guest to arrive at an event is predicted to have bad luck. It’s a similar idea to the American superstition that the first person to leave a 13 person dinner party will have bad luck and it’s been suggested that this was the reason why the Agatha Christie novel, Lord Edgware Dies (1933) had its name changed to Thirteen to Dinner for publication in the USA. However, it would also seem there is a detective story with a similar connection with the unlucky number 13, which predates Christie’s and that is The Thirteenth Guest (1929) by Armitage Trail (better known for Scar Face (1932)).
Suffering from a crushed romance, Thirteen Guests, opens with John Foss avoiding his problems by taking the first train to anywhere, only to end up getting his foot stuck in the door of a moving train. Help is at hand though, as Nadine Leveridge, a woman who managed to alight the train without getting physically attached to it, offers to take him to Bragley Court, where she plans to spend the weekend and where John can receive medical attention for his foot. Farjeon puts a lot of effort into introducing Nadine into the story emphasising her excessive attractiveness:
‘Her nose delighted your thoughts and defied your theories. Her complexion was too perfect. Her frankly ridiculous lips annoyed…’
Not sure how many theories people have concerning noses, but what is for sure is that Nadine is being set up as a woman who is dangerous in her ability to make men fall in love with her and was summed up by her now deceased husband as ‘one of life’s most glorious risks’ and on his wedding day thinks ‘let her tear me to pieces.’ Although powerfully set up, Nadine’s role in the story is fairly minimal in comparison to others and she doesn’t really live up to the ‘tear me to pieces’ image.
Bragley Court is owned by the politically ambitious and strapped for cash Lord Aveling and who lives with his wife, his daughter Anne and his seriously ill mother in law Mrs Morris. Lord Aveling has invited a number of guests down for the weekend which include:
- Harold Taverley, a keen cricketer who is particularly chummy with Anne;
- Leicester Pratt, an artist who has been commissioned to paint both Anne and another guest in the group;
- Mr Rowe, his wife and his daughter, Ruth (the other sitter for Mr Pratt) and they come from a mercantile background;
- Edyth Fermoy-Jones, who is a thriller/crime writer who is a rather satirised figure, but perhaps was one of the more interesting characters who was not developed in the story;
- Sir James Earnshaw, a politician who is considering switching political allegiances;
- Zena Wilding, the typical actress character you find in fiction;
- Lionel Butlin, a gossip columnist, who is also given a well explained back story, like Nadine which is not fully used and
- Mr and Mrs Chaters, the former of whom is the 13th guest to enter Bragley Court.
Added to the mix there is a mysterious man who crops up in the story who frightens maids, blanches certain guests and is incredibly possessive and obsessive about the times the train is coming in and his black bag. As expected there are tensions bubbling beneath the surface between various members of the weekend party and Farjeon captures this well in his narrative voice:
‘But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious lounge-hall… something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets, and none of the people John had so far met reflected complete mental ease.’
These bubbles begin to rise to the surface quickly as Mr Chater’s makes himself disagreeable to everyone he meets, with his propensity for pumping people for information. Furthermore, small acts of violence begin to occur: Pratt’s painting of Anne is vandalised and during the night, where unsurprisingly many members of the household are up and about and after barking a lot, Haig, one of Lord Aveling’s dogs is found killed and the studio Pratt has been working in has had one of its windows’ smashed.
This violence expands when after a day’s hunt, an unidentified man has been found dead in a nearby quarry and Mr Chater’s horse comes back without his rider. In the ensuing investigation Detective Inspector Kendall; who is given a strong write up when he is first introduced into the story, follows many leads, aided by the amateur help of Lionel, whose altruism is motived by copy for his newspaper. I found this novel had rather a slow start and middle which suddenly develops into a rapid police investigation, resulting in the reader finding out the solution (which is good) via the detective’s note book. But this was not an effective or engaging method and consequently many rabbits had to be pulled out of hats. Ironically in the novel it is mentioned that ‘the watcher sees most of the game,’ which is a reference to the laid up John Foss, but in fact could be a description of the readers’ role. The only problem is that we as readers do not get to see that much as this means of revealing the solution entails that we have to rely on the detective’s word rather than being allowed to draw our own conclusions. Furthermore, scenes at the end of the novel rather question Detective Kendall’s version of events. Disappointingly the novel ends weakly and ineffectually, trying to pick up the strands of romance it left in the first third of the novel and I must say it may take the prize for the weirdest piece of dialogue to end a novel with, which is supposed to be romantic in tone.
In comparison to another of Farjeon’s novels which I have read, The Mystery in White (1937), I was disappointed with this story. The mystery which is set up is very promising but the rushed and concealed investigation of Detective Kendall lets the novel down. Moreover, Farjeon puts a lot of effort into exploring certain characters’ personalities in the first half of the story, yet this is left behind in the second half, making these instances of very good writing come across as padding.