It has been over two years since I have tried a Ben the Tramp mystery by Farjeon, though I have tried other Farjeon novels in between. Ben is an unusual protagonist, contrasting with the pre-WW2 trend for aristocratic sleuths. He is not a criminal, though he does have an ambivalent attitude towards the law, which is probably due to his peripheral position in society. Yet it is this vulnerable position which enables Ben to come across a number of criminal and bizarre events. Through no inclination of his own he ends up in the middle of such pickles and therefore feels compelled to go on to solve or resolve them after a fashion, based upon his own moral/ethical code.
In this story it is actually through his attempts to evade fate’s predilection for landing him in bother, that Ben ends up in his latest spot of difficulty, when he bumps into a man during a foggy day in London. One thing leads to another and he has a policeman after him and he is only able to avoid him by running into a derelict building’s basement. Yet what he finds in there is not for the faint-hearted, as he lands straight into the middle of a crime scene, a man shot through the chest. Ben is closely followed by an enigmatic man, he nicknames Bushy Brows, and through much verbal fencing, the corpse’s identity, address and loved one are identified. Bushy Brows is keen for Ben to keep in contact and gives him a letter of introduction to his own lodgings and Ben is keen to get to the bottom of what is really going on, so agrees to go there. From here on in Ben has to keep his wits about him as piece by piece he figures out what has really happened, though the conclusion of the case takes him and the reader by surprise.
Ben is quite likeable in a number of ways and the narrative voice contains an underlying humour when talking about him; a sort of cynical commentary on his life. For instance at one point it is said that:
‘he partially filled a neglected void with two substantial sandwiches. They were so substantial that you couldn’t taste what was inside them. Thinking it might be a good idea to find out, Ben opened one to see, but as he found nothing he supposed he had opened it in the wrong place.’
Whilst in another instance you can see his fallibility, in his slightly muddled thinking:
‘A door that is ajar may always be useful to pop into, but you have to remember that before you pop into it, something may pop out if it. There was that time, for instance, when a Chinaman had popped out. And then there was that time when four constables had popped out. And then there was that time when a headless chicken had popped out. Or had that one been a dream?’
Of course it is also quite easy to feel sorry for him and like many a wearied amateur sleuth, murder and chaos seem to follow him around: ‘Ben was an expert on corpses. They just wouldn’t let him alone.’ Though I think my favourite part is when Ben muses on the various places he has to sleep in or on:
‘Ben could sleep anywhere. The acquirement had been developed through a lifetime of necessity […] Once on a very dark night he had slept quite comfortably on a dead cow. True, he did not know at the time that it was a cow, or dead, the alarming discovery being made on waking, but in the darkness the mound had made a comfortable pillow for the head, and what you don’t know doesn’t trouble you.’
I think the only thing which may irritate some readers is Ben’s cockney accent/dialect, as it makes for very hard reading at times and did mean I had to read that much slower to understand what he is saying. I appreciate his form of speech fits in with his character, but his inability to pronounce certain words and his tendency to add h’s left right and centre, did get a bit tiring.
Yet the book is not all about Ben and Farjeon presents us with an array of characters, some more nuanced than others, as he varies the narrative point of view. One of his most memorable character descriptions, for me, is when he says that ‘Mrs Kenton […] looked as though she had […] come off second-best in an encounter with the parrot.’ Furthermore, Farjeon’s flair for description also appears in his setting of scenes, though I think he does enjoy using out of the ordinary similes:
‘The door of No. 46 had once been red, but had now faded to a pale and indeterminate hue, like the lips of an ill, disillusioned girl who no longer had the energy or interest to use a lipstick.’
I don’t know if this book will be everyone’s cup of tea, but in the main I would say it is an entertaining story and the finale surprises were well-conceived.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Shooting
The House Opposite (1931)