Source: Review Copy
I have read three other novels by J. Jefferson Farjeon, but this is my first read by him to feature his serial character, Ben, the tramp detective, who began a popular career on the stage in a comical play called Number 17. Nowadays of course he is largely forgotten, which is a shame as Ben is a fascinating character; comical, blunt, philosophical, unselfish, with a tendency to show the reader life from the ‘worm’s eye view,’ according to H. R. F. Keating who wrote an introduction to this novel in 1985. The novel is in two parts, the first part which focuses mostly on events at No.29 on Jowle is written purely from Ben’s perspective, whilst the second half of the novel, switches to events occurring at No.26 on the same street, which means that an omniscient narrator is employed for a time. Keating in his introduction suggests that Ben’s perspective dominating (though not in the first person) is a blessing and a curse, on the one hand helping us to sympathise with Ben, whilst on the other hand it can limit what information we are given. Personally I think this latter concern is a very minor one, as often the reader can infer/deduce information which Ben cannot and the readers’ and narrators’ attitude towards Ben is something I will pick up on later. The Aberdeen Journal on the 26th May in 1931 praised this novel as:
‘an even better story, but less a detective study than a narrative of crime… in which a new method of narration is tried with triumphant success.’
I would have to agree with this and I think this story is much closer to a thriller than a detective story.
The House Opposite (1931) begins with Ben, who is squatting in No. 29. In these opening pages, a series of bemusing incidences occur to poor Ben, commencing with both a young Australian man and then an Indian man asking him who he is, the latter strongly implying that he should vacate the house he is residing in. A beautiful young lady also materialises, again keen to learn who Ben is and she is adept at finding out information from him, without giving any back. She asks him to keep an eye on No. 26, across the road, where a flurry of activities are taking place including suspicious packages being delivered. Even though he may be a tramp, he still perceives himself as a latter day knight and despite the warnings he is given to leave No. 29, he is determined to help the young lady.
Others are not so keen for Ben to continue his stay at No. 29 and take increasingly drastic and violent actions to prevent this, making this part of the narrative take on a cat and mouse chase quality, with Ben being the unstoppable mouse. It is not surprising that one of the characters calls him a ‘boomerang’. Now at this point anyone reading this will probably have one major question, why are people so keen for Ben to be moved on, voluntarily or otherwise? And this is also Ben’s main question too and he spends some time trying to cognate on it:
‘He did not review it as a detective would have reviewed it, building point upon point and forming question upon question; he reviewed it unscientifically and emotionally, the various problems revolving in the ample space of his mind like planets in a deranged solar system. But out of the chaos we, better fed and equipped, may select material for constructive conjecture by seizing on the more important of the questions in transit…’
The narrative at points such as this does directly address the reader and in this example in particular I thought a different relationship was being set up between the reader and Ben, namely that Ben was to be the Watson in the relationship and purportedly the reader being better able to solve what is happening, taking on the more Holmes-like role. And because of this I did feel like the narrator was trying to assert a sense of superiority over Ben and suggesting that the reader could do the same. I didn’t necessarily feel very comfortable with this idea, but then Ben really is a bit of twit sometimes, not always being the best judge of character or a very quick or smart thinker in an emergency. But I think to understand Ben as a person you have to try to get into his way of thinking, as his mentality is lightyears away from that of Poirot or even Tommy Hambledon, to keep in with the more thriller genre.
Part 1 concludes on a dramatic note and a bit of a cliff hanger as part 2 goes back in time, providing the other side of the coin to the events which happened in part 1. This helps the reader to put names to faces, as most of the characters Ben meets don’t give their names and maybe even more importantly, the motivations and purposes behind characters’ actions are also revealed, showing the good guys from the well… bad ones. However, I will stress that Farjeon does well in this section to not become repetitive and events do eventually arrive at the point at which they were left in part 1. In a way the majority of the novel is leading up to a crime, a crime which Ben and others are still trying to fathom out and when clarification finally arrives, it takes a dramatic finale to see if the crime in question can be prevented or whether Ben has finally run out of chances…
As I said earlier on I think Ben is a fascinating character and because he is a not perfect albeit unconventional hero, as he does have his faults. Farjeon recreates cockney, working class English well, keeping the balanced between verisimilitude and readers beings able to understand what is being said. Class is an important theme in the novel I think as it governs Ben’s behaviour, as mentally and verbally he places himself below those who he deems as rich or middle/upper class, especially if they are women. Although this does not mean he will take insults such as ‘snail’ or ‘worm,’ lying down, so therefore does place some value on himself. But he is aware that his actions are sometimes inhibited by his tramp status, knowing that authority figures such as the police are less likely to believe him or trust him and it is not surprising that when the police do get involved, it is other more middle class characters who brought them in.
An unexpected theme in the novel was that of race. Of course, I have mentioned the nameless Indian man, who tries to move Ben on, but it seems that even from this man’s first attempts to do so (there are many), he takes on gigantic and nightmarish proportions in Ben’s head, at times preventing him from moving or thinking. This could just be written off as ignorant racism, but I think this would be too reductive an approach. Initially yes Ben’s comments on the Indian do fit this reductive picture, but [SPOILER ALERT] when he finally manages to kill the Indian man (self-defence) his reaction to it suggests a more complicated truth:
‘That was it! The Indian! That was it! All his life he had been running away from Indians. They’d chased him and tried to kill him. They’d crept up creaking stairs, slithered from under beds, leapt out from cupboards. And now he had killed one. There the Indian lay, still and quiet, never to move again… And he, Ben had done it. He, Ben! He, Ben! He, Ben! Has, ha, ha!’
I think it was the line ‘all his life he had been running away from Indians,’ which I found the most telling, as within the story there is only one Indian man and the events take place over a matter of days. This could be Ben exaggerating but I felt that perhaps ‘Indians’ was representative of a different type of conflict Ben has been facing in his life, or could even symbolise death itself and this ties into Homi Bhabha’s concept that one culture stereotyping or defining another culture has ‘metonymic’ (Bhabha, 1994:81) qualities. [Probably safe to resume reading if avoided spoiler]. The Indian man in this story for Ben also represents the unknown and Ben’s wild ideas of what foreign people are like, especially from “the east” and because the Indian man is an unknown quantity, Ben and the language he uses concerning this man tries to fix this man’s identity, a concept which again links back to Bhabha’s work on stereotyping. Ben is not the only person to act/ think negatively of the Indian man, as one of his own confederates simultaneously ‘aggressively states his superiority to the [Indian man]… but is always anxiously contemplating his own identity, which is never quite as stable as his aggression implies’ (Huddart, 2006: 43). This is reinforced in the text when the narrator describes this man’s response to the Indian man, which sees that ‘’the East” ‘never allows the West to feel comfortable in its victories…’
Overall, I thought this was a compelling book, which has been a different read (in plot, style and genre) in comparison with the other novels I have been reviewing lately. I would have given it a slightly higher rating (4/5), if the pace had been a bit quicker at the end as I felt that the return of Ben’s perspective at the end of the narrative slowed it down a bit. If you like Farjeon’s work or you’re in the mood for something different I would recommend this book, as Ben is definitely a character worth encountering.
N. B. This is book has been reprinted by the Collins Crime Club and according to Amazon is going to be released on 31/12/2015.
See also my reviews on Farjeon’s
Bhabha, Homi, K. (2004). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Huddart, D. (2006). Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge.