For my final TNB look at poison I have decided to review J. Jefferson Farjeon’s The Oval Table (1946). Farjeon has become a more well-known writer from the Golden Age period due to the British Library and Harper Collins reprints of his work. Mystery in White (1938) was a great success for the British Library and they have followed it up with reprinting Thirteen Guests (1936) and The Z Murders (1932). Out of those three the first is my favourite as the story showcases Farjeon’s writing skills the best. Harper Collins have reprinted The House Opposite (1931) and next month more Ben the Tramp books will be appearing.
From the very first page the death of John Coleby is foretold, taking place at his oval shaped dining table, which has skulls mounted on the name card holders and in front of his 12 guests, including Leonard Boyd, who is newly arrived in England and is unaware that he will become a part of such a dinner. Boyd in fact has come from Australia on unknown business with Coleby. Yet due to one of the other guests not turning up, Boyd is asked to take their place at the dinner. There are a range of guests such as the disfigured actor Rodney Forsythe, Coleby’s nephew, Peter and his wife, Jenny Macpherson and her father, one of Coleby’s employee’s Ted Snagg, James Rutter a business rival, Coleby’s house keeper and his paralysed father and a clergyman and his wife. What do they all have in common?
Well it appears that they all have a reason for wishing Coleby ill will and he has brought them all together (excluding Boyd of course) because he has received a threatening letter and he believes one of the dinner party wants to murder him. During his toast to death, the tension and the strain become unbearable, even his brief foray into the library to look up a quote puts everyone under a great deal of strain. The lights going out, someone locking Coleby in the library and a gun going off may well have something to do with it. But Coleby is not dead yet. That happens when he concludes his toast drinking his wine – leading of course to this month’s TNB theme, poison!
DI Hogarth is called into investigate. Farjeon presents the reader with a number of subsequent peculiar or shocking turn of events. For example there is Forsythe who seems to be becoming increasing deranged and Hogarth is left wondering why someone would give Snagg a doped cigarette. And then of course there is also the matter of the guest who didn’t turn up. With a combination of re-enacting events and suspect interviews, many of the guests’ secrets begin to come out. But whose secret led to murder?
The setting is very gothic and quite macabre in an artificial way, as Coleby has lilies at the dinner table and salt cellars shaped like coffins. Farjeon is usually quite good at building up tension, suspense and atmosphere – having a thriller strain in his writing, but I don’t think it comes out as well here due to the slightly over the top setting. Moreover, I think Mystery in White had greater tension and atmosphere as Farjeon uses naturally occurring circumstances such as snow to cut his characters off, transforming an idyllic country home into a place fraught with danger. In the middle of The Oval Table (1946), I think the pacing suffers a little because of Farjeon’s choice of having a police investigation rather than having his guests solve the case in a more thriller like fashion. The latter option might have showcased Farjeon’s writing skills better. However, the investigation does pick up and improve, aided by Farjeon including further shocking incidences. Equally the case is solved within a 3 hour time period, which I think was an effective time frame, as if it had been dragged out over several times I think it would have become unreadable.
It was interesting though to see how people reacted to the various situations, such as during the toast which Coleby was manipulating to make it as tense as possible. This reminded me of Mary Aldin who says in Christie’s Towards Zero (1944) that she likes ‘experimenting sometimes – upon people. Just [to] see… if I can make them react to what I say in the way I mean.’ In some ways it felt like Coleby was doing something similar. The guests don’t really come to life as much until after Coleby’s death, prior to this point they often referred to as ‘ghosts,’ ‘spectral’ and as statues waiting to be commanded into movement. The group of guests as a whole are definitely a bit of an odd bunch, reminding me of some of the casts Michael Innes’ had in his detective novels. And also like Innes there are moments of surreal comicalness such as when the guests begin a chase after a figure outside the house, with the looney Forsythe quoting A Midsummer Nights’ Dream (1605) and the Reverend ‘tottering past the dining-room door, trying to feel like a holy Crusader instead of just a bewildered mortal wondering what to do.’
Once the investigation gets underway the reader spends a lot of time with Hogarth and initially I wasn’t looking forward to this as he seemed a bit in love with himself and arrogant to boot:
‘He had a contempt for ordinary police methods, and he always argued that had he been a criminal he would have had little difficulty in getting away with all his crimes. He had, therefore, a contempt also for the ordinary criminal who allowed himself to be caught.’
There was also a really weird moment with him and the house keeper where he makes a big thing of her obeying him, yet then only asks her to go and get his sergeant. Thankfully though these issues disappeared with Hogarth’s sense of superiority rarely intruding into the narrative.
All in all this was an okay read, but I don’t think people need to rush and buy a copy of it. This is not Farjeon at his peak. There are a number of strengths to the story, yet these are not emphasised as much as they should have been by the narrative due to Farjeon’s structural choices. Moreover, the solution to the mystery was a little disappointing, as I figured it a very likely possibility even before Coleby was dead. If this novel had been written earlier such as in the 1920s then the solution would have seemed much more novel. Yet by 1946 I think it was rather old hat and there were other solutions I think would have been more interesting. Furthermore, I think the way the solution was revealed to the group lacked oomph.