2 January 2015
MYSTERY IN WHITE by J.Jefferson Farjeon
Let me begin with a ‘heads-up’. This month I’m reviewing two crime novels. A couple of weeks ago I looked at THE CUCKOO’S CALLING by Robert Galbraith where l took the opportunity to carry out an anatomical dissection of the book in order to establish the essential components of the genre. Today I’m repeating the exercise with MYSTERY IN WHITE but rather go over the same ground again, you may wish to scroll down and read my earlier review to get the gist of where I’m coming from. So…
I don’t normally buy books and I certainly don’t purchase anything on impulse. In my house that’s a function carried out by my wife and besides, we already have enough reading material to keep me going for the next 20 years. So it was much to my surprise (and hers) when I (recklessly) picked up a copy of MYSTERY IN WHITE on a recent visit to Waterstones. My intention was to sink into a chair at some point over the Christmas period and enjoy something frivolous in front of a warm fire. Tick (as Miranda would say) – but how did it compare?
Well, it’s a completely different kind of crime novel to THE CUCKOO’S CALLING and taken together, they show the incredible breadth of the genre. MYSTERY IN WHITE was written in the 1930s when ‘drawing room’ crime was in vogue and the likes of Agatha Christie were producing such well-known classics as MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. MYSTERY IN WHITE also starts life on a train but soon transfers to the drawing room as the train becomes stuck in the snow and the passengers are forced to decamp to a nearby house. It’s curiously empty and so the mystery begins. Let’s look closely at its essential elements and see how it’s constructed.
Firstly, our detective. Mr Maltby is definitely ‘old school’. All we know about him is that he’s elderly (and thereby presumably wise) and a member of the Royal Psychical Society (and thereby presumably possessed of psychical powers). In other words, an interfering amateur. Beyond that we have nothing to go on and there’s definitely no ‘back story’. Unlike Cormoran Strike (THE CUCKOO'S CALLING), he certainly won’t be sleeping on the sofa because of some past and unrevealed misdemeanour.
Does he have a partner? Ostensibly no – but he does recruit help from another of the party, a young man named David who does all the running about while Maltby patiently observes. It’s hardly Holmes and Watson and whereas Watson is always above suspicion, David is not. Is he up to something while out of Maltby’s sight?
As to setting, I think we’ve already bottomed that out. This is the country house and upper middle class England of the inter-war years where no one seems to have a real job and everyone has afternoon tea at 4 o’clock. Compared to Galbraith’s modern day London, it’s all very genteel. Having said that Farjeon does make some concession to the working class as two of his characters are a chorus girl and a clerk. The chorus girl is lively and a source of attraction but the clerk keeps to himself and his room. Could he be the murderer?
As was the case with THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, the crime (or crimes, as bodies are gradually discovered buried in the snow) are not of the lurid kind. No excess of blood or gore or weird perversions here. I don’t think one expects that in the country house setting – we’re more interested in solving the mystery and the method of deduction ie. why and how rather than what. So much so that I can’t actually remember the details as to how the murders were carried out eg. strangled, stabbed or shot although at some stage there was mention of a kitchen knife.
Now for Mr Maltby’s methods. I had great hopes of this as I sensed there was a forensic mind at work and I much enjoy the interpretation of physical clues. I was even prepared to accept a little psychic analysis and make a small leap of faith based purely on the formation of character. But once again I was disappointed as I reached the end of the book unsure as to exactly how the culprit had been unmasked and the mystery unraveled. We even need a chapter at the end where the local police inspector explains everything to his sergeant – a device, one feels, which enables the author to explain things to the reader just in case they didn’t get it. Ah well…
And lastly, the ‘issue’. Is there a message here somewhere? Is Mr Farjeon trying to tell us something? No, absolutely not, this is entertainment, pure and simple. And given that my original intention was to curl up in front of a warm fire with something frivolous, thank goodness for that!