I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book when several people over the past few weeks have mentioned how this book did not come up to scratch for them. Yet I think for me, the fast pace of the novel (the events take place within a couple of days), was quite enjoyable, especially in contrast to the much slower pace of the last book I reviewed and on the whole I think I enjoyed this one more than Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests (1936)(which I’ve also reviewed on here). You can tell Farjeon enjoys setting up a scene or a landscape especially when opening his novels, which in this novel begins in London, at an unseemly hour of the morning at Euston station:
‘Like a woman surprised before she has had a chance to shake off the night and beautify herself for the day, London gives no welcome to intruders at this hour.’
Though to be honest he might have taken this enjoyment a little too far when he describes a train engine as a ‘metal mammoth’. It is from this train in the early hours of the morning that Richard Temperley alights, after an uncomfortable journey from the North, having had to share a carriage with a snoring man. This leads him to think: ‘how pleasant it would be to murder him!’ It just so happens that someone else has the same idea and acts upon it, as within minutes of both Richard and the snoring man entering a hotel to kill time before going onto their final destinations, the latter is shot through an open window, with the killer leaving a metal chip with a crimson Z on. Inspector James is called into investigate, though he finds Richard a rather recalcitrant witness, as though not involved in the crime himself, he is determined to protect a woman he saw for a split second rushing away from the crime scene. He goes even further by withholding her handbag (left at the scene) from the police and instead goes on a mission to track her down and offer her unconditional support (as you do), seeing himself in the role of knight saving a damsel in distress and even perceiving her home as ‘the sort of place that any knight worth his armour would rescue a fair lady from.’
If you’re expecting answers at this point be disappointed as our mystery lady, who is called Sylvia Wynne, is adept at eliciting every scrap of information Richard has, without revealing any of her own (a process which occurs at many points in the novel, which can be a bit maddening for Richard and the reader alike). Yet this does not deter our doggedly faithful hero who follows her (while trying to lose police tails) hundreds of miles around the country. And all the while, as they flit from place to place individually and together the body count (which superficially lacks rhyme or reason) rises, with a metal Z disc being left each time. In a suitable thriller fashion there are many cat and mouse like chases with the police, Sylvia, Richard and the guilty parties interchanging roles and using a wide range of transport including planes and taxis.
Furthermore, it is not just Richard and Sylvia’s escapades we follow, but also those responsible for the “Z Murders,” which thankfully provide us with more information about the case. I found the killer an unusual one and it is in these chapters where we find out not just their physical features but also about their psychological makeup, discovering the back story which led to the current murderous events. Physically alarming and mentally Machiavellian it’s unsurprising that one character feels ‘suddenly as though he had attached himself to the devil.’ With skill Farjeon brings events to a head with further deaths, kidnapping and drugging. Only time (or rather, very rapid page turning) will tell who will survive and who doesn’t; in a case where no one knows how much they can trust one another and whether someone they hold dear will turn against them…
I think my main issue with this novel was the central characters, Richard and Sylvia, who are a rather disappointing hero and heroine duo. To begin with Richard’s premonitions in Chapter 1 are a bit too precipitous and his sudden descent into being overwhelmed on finding the body seemed a bit much:
‘Reaction from a long and tiring journey. Reaction from the shock of seeing a dead man whom he had seen so recently alive… Reaction from the strain of a long cross examination. Reaction from the confusion of a contentedly guilty conscience… Reaction from the greater confusion set up by the owner of the purse, and of the ridiculous emotions her vision inspired.’
Aside from noticing the use of anaphoric repetition, my main thought on reading this was why can’t this man get a grip? His desire to protect a lady he’s only just met and help the police in some capacity which doesn’t affect the former reminded me a bit of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, except Richard doesn’t have a Jeeves to tell him when he’s being a ninny. Overall I felt this sudden and unbreakable decision to help Sylvia unconditionally too implausible to be ignored at times, though thankfully this does wear a bit in the second half of the novel, where our killer takes a more dominant role. Additionally, Richard wasn’t a character I could readily sympathise with, despite his thoughts being shared with us at certain points, as some of his thoughts/opinions were occasionally pompous or callous.
In contrast, there were a number of other mostly minor characters I found really interesting and engaging such as Richard’s sister Winifred who features strongly in one comic chapter where various people ring her looking for Richard, all knowing who she is but her knowing none of them. Moreover, I found the depiction of the taxi driver, Diggs, who features a lot in the latter half of the novel particularly touching in his loyalty and his desire for a pet dog. Additionally I also found the killer a much more interesting and far less annoying character than Richard and the chapters were he featured predominantly were engaging as they provided opportunities for analysing how he interacted and used others for his own ends, as well as trying to figure out his next move, which was difficult due to his unpredictability and the lies he tells other characters.
Rating: 3.5/5 (Despite the failings of the lead man and woman, I still think this was better than Thirteen Guests, as Farjeon’s pacey style is suited to a thriller context and he was able to maintain the drama and tension throughout, as well as bring some comic relief from time to time.)
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