Mystery in White (1937) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4/5

11 comments

  1. I’m glad that you were able to go back and take another look at this as I was curious to see what you made of it. I do agree that the opening to the book is quite charming and, like you, I also preferred the first half of the book to the second. I also seem to remember getting frustrated with the character who appoints himself as a leader of the group though my memory may be cheating me!

    I did just take a look at your 10 (ish) Christmas Mysteries post from a few years back – would there be any titles you would now add to that list?

    Liked by 1 person

    • hmmm good question. In no particular order I remember enjoying these Christmas mysteries:
      The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
      Dancing with Death by Joan Coggins (though the Lady Lupin series (of 4 books) ought to be read in order).
      An English Murder by Cyril Hare
      The Wrong Murder by Craig Rice
      Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan
      Dancing Death by Christopher Bush
      Portrait of Murderer by Anne Meredith
      The Black Headed Pins by Constance and Gwenyth Little

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  2. Agreed that the first part is the best bit of the book. However, that is also it’s undoing as the reader’s expectations are unceremoniously crushed by the second half. The first half is structured as any mystery would be, which means that at least I was hopelessly disappointed by the resolution of the plot.

    If the second half took the promise of the first – and the wonderful cover! – and executed it well, this would indeed be the classic that it purports to be. As it is, it’s a big letdown.To be honest, I think if it had a different cover and didn’t try to lure in readers with false expectations of a solid Christmas/winter mystery, I wouldn’t be so very disappointed in this thing. If only because then I wouldn’t have read it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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