Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Mystery in White, by J. Jefferson Farjeon,

Continuing my festive cosy-crime-a-thon, I went next for Mystery in White, the surprise sleeper hit of last year which was recently reissued for the first time since the 1930s.

It's a bit of a time capsule really, set between the wars and probably already a bit nostalgic when it was originally published .

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings the 11.37 from St Pancras to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. It's the olden days where trains actually left and ran to a schedule, so modern readers will have to suspend their disbelief somewhat. A mixed assortment of passengers of the type that would never normally associate (Jessie, a chorus girl, an 'old bore' that keeps talking about India and snakes named Mr Hopkins, a trendy brother and sister; David and Lydia, a physic Derek Acorah type that goes by the name of Mr Maltby and a dull, fantasist clerk called Mr Thomson) sit around in the stationary carriage and discuss their options. The brother and sister, the clerk and the chorus girl decide to try their luck walking to the next station but become lost and disoriented in the snow.

Stumbling across a deserted country house, they decide to take shelter within; the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but it seems that no one is at home. They decide to create an itemised list of everything the eat, drink and use, with the intention of reimbursing the rightful but absent owners. After a short look around, the chorus girl is confined to bed with a twisted ankle, and the clerk with a fever. The old bore and the psychic arrive shortly, with a common, rough and inherently suspicious type named Smith who a few of the group recognise from the train, but who denies being anywhere near it. 

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers seek to unravel the empty house's mysteries, overseen by a creepy, too-lifelike portrait of the probable owner. There are bodies discovered in the snow, lots of traipsing back and forth in the unforgiving weather, there are locked doors that are suddenly unlocked, hidden letters, incriminating axes and disturbances to the psychic atmosphere of the house, channeled through the chorus girl and the psychic. The plot thickens with the rescue of two stranded motorists crashed into a ditch in a country lane; a young woman and an old man- they bring with them knowledge of of an old family rivalry and answers about the identity of the man in the portrait.

There's an interesting crop of characters, with laughably contemporary (to the 30s) attitudes to women and beta males. The man with too much imagination and the flighty woman are cloistered away upstairs pretty quickly; the alpha males downstairs to their civic duty by trying to shield the lesser minds from the unpleasantness, potentially the evil, of the house. Lydia, the trendy sister is by far the most appealing character- tasked with nursing the invalids, bringing trays of pineapple upstairs (??) she's determined to contribute her opinions to the dude-fest-decision making table and holds her own throughout.

Mystery in White is an enjoyable, melodramatic romp from the golden age of crime. It begins in a so far so Murder on the Orient Express kind of way, but deviates from that track as soon as the characters exit the train. I loved the gradual build up of dread that was thinly, patiently and expertly layered- it's a pace so slow that it would seem unacceptable to the modern thriller reader. The tension almost sneaks up on you.

Usually, with any crime that isn't Raymond Chandler, it's kind of obvious long before the conclusion which way the mystery is unraveling and the dexterous reader can often see it coming. Most mystery stories twist and twist, lob a red herring, twist a bit more, then either finish with your suspicions confirmed, or a end with a twist finish that looking back doesn't really fit with the previous twists. Not so much with this. The addition of wildcard characters towards the end is unexpected and throws any arising suspicions out pretty instantly. It's hard to know where its going- there's always a chance that it might even veer into ghost story territory.

It's an enjoyable, festive little mystery that fits the pre-Christmas bill when it's still a bit early for A Christmas Carol and 2016 has left you with no motivation to read or do anything other than scream into a pillow. I can see why some readers might see it as slow, bland and lacking in excitement, but sometimes, a nice gentle, surprising mystery is just what you need. Like the book equivalent of tea and toast.