Seven Dead (1939) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Blue Object

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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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12 Responses to Seven Dead (1939) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

  1. I’ll look forward to this one then – might have to nudge the British Library for a review copy…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TomCat says:

    I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I have to ask: is this a locked room mystery? The synopsis mentioned a locked room and you talked about nailed down window shutters.

    I’ll likely give this one a bump on my wish list regardless, because the premise has me intrigued, but I’m also nurturing an impossible crime addiction. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review. 🙂 Do I infer correctly that the novel eventually turns out to be a thriller, more like ‘Z Murders’, rather than a mystery, like ‘Thirteen Guests’? I think I shall give it a try… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t say it is that simple as the opening 50 pages are the crime setup and initial info from the police. The narrative then switches to Thomas’ actions, which are be considered thrillerish. The narrative then moves back to Kendall and we have more police investigation, before the ending – yet I think its unconventionality precludes it from easy categorisation.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. JJ says:

    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.

    I have alimited experience of Farjeion, but based on the two books I’ve read I coudn’t agree more. This is part of why I waited for some reviews of this to come out before jumping in to buy it. Mystery in White was far more interesting in its structure than the typical GAD novel of that ilk, and there’s something enthralling about seeing someone take the standard ingredients and combine them in a subtly different way. Z Murders was equally uncommon in its structure and intent, though in that case I think it hamstrung things a little for my tastes.

    For this slightly skewed way of approaching standard plots, Farjeon reminds me a bit of my equally-limited reading of E.C.R. Lorac — the setup is just enough out of the expected, and the investigation won’t necessarily run along the Christie-expected lines, and so what you get can either be arrestingly different (Mystery in White, Devil and the CID) or can squander an interesting idea through too little traction (Z Murders, Case in the Clinic). You make this sound like one of the former, so I’ll be sure to check it out — many thanks for your help!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy to help! Definitely think this is Farjeon’s strongest effort out of the 4 or 5 I have read. E. C. R. Lorac is a writer I haven’t tried much from and the one I read was quite conventional. However I have another of hers in my TBR pile so hopefully get around to it soon.

      Like

  5. Guy Savage says:

    I have this to read, and it will be my second Farjeon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Book of the Month: September 2017 | crossexaminingcrime

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