When deciding which two books to re-read this month, in keeping with my own personal challenge to re-read various vintage novels, this one seemed like a very appropriate candidate for December. Its’ subtitle is ‘A Christmas Crime Story’ after all. I have fond memories of this one, remembering it for the way it combines the thriller with some detective work; a combo I believe shows Farjeon at his best.
The story begins with a lot of snow, which is always good for a Christmas set mystery, though this is not such good news for the various passengers travelling third class on Christmas Eve from London. We have Mr Hopkins, the world class bore, a young clerk called Robert Thomson, who is decidedly under the weather, a Jessie Noyes who is a chorus girl, bright young pair of siblings, David and Lydia Carrington and the mysterious Mr Maltby amongst others. When their train becomes stuck, these passengers for differing reasons and times decamp, aiming to find their way to the next station. However none of succeed, instead having to seek sanctuary in a house, though there troubles are far from over… There’s fire roaring, a kettle boiling, but no one is at home… We have peculiar noises coming from behind locked doors, a belligerent new arrival who is determined to deny having come from the train, and another equalling unpleasant new arrival who is sure he was and even worse might have been responsible for a death on the train they left. Characters disappear, even more arrive, so you won’t be surprised that this is a long night for everyone.
Whilst I don’t think I enjoyed this book as much as I did when I first read it, (Seven Dead is now definitely my top Farjeon read), there were still lots of things I enjoyed about it. The opening to the book is certainly one of them, as Farjeon captures the British attitude towards snow perfectly: ‘It grew beyond the boundaries of local interest. By the 23rd it was news. By the 24th it was a nuisance. Practical folk cursed. Even the sentimentalists wondered how they were going to carry out their programmes.’ Farjeon also reveals in his opening chapters his skill in slowly adding sinister elements to the plot; a frightened face, one set of footprints too many etc. Moreover, the creepiness is often introduced in the face of superficially comforting surroundings: ‘This house, for all its fires, rather gave one the creeps…’
The group of stranded characters the author brings together also works well in the main, as they have personalities which are inevitably going to clash and tension mounts the more people are added or subtracted from the group dynamic. Such a tense moment is when David once more has to try and extract some information from the less than helpful Mr Hopkins. He delays his answer with the audacious question: ‘Why do you keep on going round and round the bush with me?’ Nevertheless David’s comeback is a good one: ‘Because, Mr Hopkins, whenever anything has to be faced, you always go round and round the bush yourself, and so I have to go round and round the bush to catch up with you.’ One thing which I hadn’t noticed on my first read and which did get on my wick slightly this time, was the role and personality allotted to Lydia, who came across as a too chipper Girl Guide on steroids, (mild exaggeration perhaps). I feel reader is probably telling her to stuff trying to maintain the spirit of Christmas and just get on with the new information that there might be a body outside…
In some ways I find it hard to pin down why the second half didn’t work for me quite so well as I presumed it would. Whilst there is sufficient incident, the plot seemed to run out of steam a little. The character holding the mystery element of the story together relied a bit too much on info dumping in chunks and no puzzle fan will be impressed with the statement: ‘I am groping my way through sensations as well as known or deduced facts,’ nor ‘When you find the atmosphere facts resolve themselves inside it.’
This book may not be for the puzzle purist but for readers who love to soak in atmosphere, spooky goings on and festive fun, will find much to enjoy.