Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Farjeon was an author I looked at a few times when I first started my blog, reviewing titles such as Thirteen Guests (1936), The Z Murders (1932) and The House Opposite (1931). But I haven’t much looked at him since, so this latest reprint from the British Library has been a good reminder to revisit him. One thing I particularly enjoyed from the introduction by Martin Edwards was that the biographical information focused on personal memories from those who knew Farjeon.
As Martin mentions in the introduction, this story has a brilliantly dramatic opening and setup for a crime. A house breaking expedition into Haven House turns nasty when Ted Lyte unlocks a room, with its window shutters nailed in, and finds 7 people dead, 6 men and one woman in male attire. Whilst there is a note suggesting this scene to be a climax of a suicide club, Inspector Kendall is far from convinced, especially given the difficulties over what all the victims died of. There are many other very peculiar facets to this crime, but I will leave those for you to discover yourselves. A journalist and yacht enthusiast named Thomas Hazeldean also enters this perplexing case and he is particularly drawn to a painting in the house of a girl, though he is concerned by the fact it has been shot. Incidentally it turns out that the subject of the picture is now grown up and is the niece of the owner of Haven House. But where are they both? The narrative then follows Hazeldean as he goes in search of the girl, getting more than he bargained for unsurprisingly enough, before we return to the detective work of Inspector Kendall.
I have always felt that Farjeon writes less conventional mysteries better, his flair for the dramatic not always fitting with the more conventional detective novel structure. In a positive way this book bears this out, as although there are conventional thriller and detective elements in this book, Farjeon goes on to combine them in an unusual and highly interesting way. This is attested to in the fantastical and surprisingly and increasingly dark ending. Initially when I entered the last 50 pages or so of the book I was a little disappointed when I felt I was going to be told a backstory rather than allowed to figure things out for myself. Yet it is a backstory which really grows on you and the ending certainly provides the unexpected, as well as being quite emotionally moving – something I have not experienced with Farjeon before.
Farjeon has chosen his plotline wisely as I think it provides him with many opportunities to exhibit his strong abilities in writing drama, tension and atmosphere. The story is well-paced and Farjeon avoids falling into the trap of including pages and pages of dry interviewing. In keeping with the tense atmosphere, Farjeon is good at writing end of chapter cliff hangers. In a way you could see this story being serialised in a newspaper or magazine. There is also a gentle humour to the book as well, which can be found in Kendall’s interactions with his less than bright subordinates. At times he comes across as an exasperated or wearied teacher, faced with unchangeably dim pupil: ‘Do stop prodding him, constable – that really won’t help.’ Thomas and Dora do carry the thriller elements of story and whilst parallels can be made between them and the protagonists of The Z Murders, I think Thomas and Dora are much better characters, with their melodramatic actions kept to a minimum.
So this is a second brilliant read in a row by the British Library Crime Classics series and I think this novel has become my new favourite Farjeon story, knocking Mystery in White (1937) into second place.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Blue Object