Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Oval Table (1946) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

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.

The Oval Table

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?

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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10 Responses to Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Oval Table (1946) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

  1. JFW says:

    Oh dear, given that there will be quite a few Farjeon titles released via Kindle, I was hoping for a better rating and commendation. Then again, thanks for the review. 🙂 Perhaps I might be tempted to try something by Philip MacDonald, but his novels are quite costly on Kindle. 😦

    P.S. I recently finished Rupert Penny’s ‘Policeman’s Holiday’, and was commenting on JJ’s blog that I would recommend you giving Penny a second shot. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes this one is not one of Farjeon’s best. I’d definitely recommend Mystery in White though. Hopefully I might read one or two of the new Ben the Tramp reprints next month, as he is definitely an intriguing accidental sleuth character, standing out from other GAD detectives. Giving Penny another shot? Hmmm. What made Policeman’s Holiday so good? Also how many diagrams are included in it? Is there any point where I might accidently think I have fallen into an instruction manual or a text book?

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      • JFW says:

        I think it’s worth trying out one of the entries in the ‘Policeman’ series. I’ve not read ‘Sealed Room Murder’, but off the back of your review, I would say that the puzzles in ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ and ‘Policeman’s Holiday’ are no less mind-bogging, but their solutions are less convoluted. ‘Policeman’s Holiday’ contained a few maps and diagrams at the start, but their details were not central to the solution. There were some acrostics that I went over my head, but the story did not include instructions pertaining to the decoding of acrostics, and the eventual explanation was not overly extensive. 😛

        Between the two, I think ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ boasts of a superior puzzle; in fact, one of the best I’ve read in 2015. The solution hinged on a couple of clever ideas, rather than a plethora of diagrams. But I think ‘Policeman’s Holiday’ is the better novel, with a smoother narrative and more engaging characters. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well if I am ever brave enough to take on Penny again I will bear your recommendations in mind.

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  2. Brad says:

    After reading this, I am happy to say that I DID purchase Murder in White a couple of months ago and intend to save it for Christmastime!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay! Hope you enjoy it and yes you’re probably more sensible than me. I am always unintentionally reading books out of season, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up reading a summer holiday mystery in December!

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  3. JJ says:

    Farjeon sounds like a problematic writer, and not one I’m necessarily that eager to try. By common consent it seems to be felt that Mystery in White is the best of his books to see the light of day recently via the British Library imprint, and while I enjoyed that it didn’t exactly inspire me to rush out and try more by him. And the contrained nature of your praise here makes me feel that the effort and cost of tracking down the titles such as this one which aren’t in general circulation probably isn’t worth it. Possibly I’m missing out, but then if I run out of everything else I want to read first I’ll always have him to come back to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Farjeon can be a bit problematic as he has so many good qualities but he just doesn’t always use them to their best advantage. He’s at his best when he is not constrained by the strict detective investigation plot. Intrigued by the Ben the Tramp reprints next month though, based on the plot synopsises on Amazon – considering his financial position he does get around a lot.

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  4. Ronald Smyth says:

    The one Ben The Tramp book that I’ve read, titled Detective Ben, was very much a thriller rather than a mystery, despite the title. A beautiful woman in a limousine and we are off on adventure. Ben is like no other detective I know actually written in the Golden Age. Very much a reaction to the heroic type popular then, The The Saint, Norman Conquest, Doc Savage etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Ben the Tramp is certainly different from his contemporary detectives. I actually think though that Farjeon is a better thriller writer than he is a conventional detective fiction writer.

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