Book review · Fiction · Photography

Book review: ‘Mystery in white’ by J Jefferson Farjeon

This is a murder mystery novel from the excellent series of British Library Crime Classics, a collection of detective novels that were once very popular but went out of print in the 20th Century. Many of the books, which have been reprinted by the British Library, date back to the years between the two world wars. ‘Mystery in white’ was first published in 1937 and has been updated with a typically attractive Crime Classics cover.

mystery in white
‘Mystery in white’ by J Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

The tale begins on Christmas Eve, in a train compartment where a group of disparate individuals are making their way to various destinations for Christmas. Heavy snowfall causes the train to stop and there’s no sign of it getting going again any time soon. After discussing with each other what to do about the situation, one of the group suddenly decides to jump off the train. The others soon follow, and before long are wishing they’d never left the comfort of the train.

They blunder on through snowy countryside, hoping to find somewhere to shelter, when they come upon a house in the middle of nowhere. Finding nobody at home but the door unlocked, they make their way in and find to their astonishment that, despite the lack of occupancy, there are cheering fires burning in the grates and tea has been laid out in the dining room.

Two of the party are in a bad way, one with a sprained ankle and the other with a raging fever. The others do their best to look after them while trying to discover the mystery behind the deserted house. One of them, elderly Mr Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society, assumes the position of leader and appoints a younger man as his second-in-command. Between them they begin to investigate the house and then the area outside, which isn’t easy due to the weather conditions.

By and by, several other characters appear, and it becomes clear that at least one murder has been committed. A strangely compelling portrait on the wall holds Mr Maltby’s attentions, and slowly but surely he uses his powers of detection to solve the mystery of the house.

According to Dorothy L Sayers: ‘Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures’ and I would certainly agree with her that he has an uncanny ability to create atmosphere and draw the reader in. I lost myself in this book at bedtime one night and had a hard time putting it down. Jefferson Farjeon wrote more than 60 novels and was apparently very popular in his lifetime. I’ll be looking out for more of his stories after enjoying this one so much.

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Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger

Ann Granger has written over 30 detective novels and this is one of her most recent, published in 2017 and featuring the sleuthing duo, Campbell and Carter .

Rooted in evil
‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger (2017)

When Carl Finch is found dead in a forest, it initially looks as if he’s committed suicide. A gun lies over his body, but something about the way he’s lying suggests the body has been moved since he was killed.

Superintendent Ian Carter and Inspector Jess Campbell start investigating the likely suspects, starting with Carl’s sister and brother-in-law, both of whom seem to be holding something back in their interviews with the police.

What I liked best about this book was the setting. Events unfold in the Cotswolds, an attractive rural part of southern England and a popular location for crime novels. There’s a nice feel of old England about it, with a close-knit community, country pubs and pleasant pastoral scenery.

This is the first Campbell and Carter mystery I’ve read and I didn’t get a particularly strong impression of the two main characters.  Perhaps if I read another in the series I’ll get a better idea of their personalities.

I was slightly bemused by the very end of the story, although pleased that Ann Granger didn’t allow herself to be tempted into an obvious ending. On the whole, I enjoyed this book, found it hard to put down, and am looking forward to trying another in the series.

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In January I made a resolution to post at least 12 book reviews on this blog, and read 100 books this year. I’m more or less on course with the reviews (I’ve done 6 to date), but I’m a long way off the reading total, which would ideally be over 50 by now, but is in fact only 33. I’m going to have to make a big effort if I’m to reach 100 by the end of December.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie

Even by Agatha Christie’s extremely high standards, this novel contains a truly ingenious plot. By her own admission, the book took an enormous amount of planning, and it’s only in an epilogue that the brilliant solution to the problem is revealed.

And then there were none
‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie (1939)

The mystery begins when ten people from a variety of backgrounds are invited to Soldier Island. The island, which lies off the Devon coast, has recently been sold to an unknown buyer and there has been much discussion in the newspapers about who may have bought it.

Each of the ten invited to the island have been lured there on different pretexts, including a young woman who believes she has been engaged as a secretary, a doctor who has been sent no details about his invitation but has received a large fee for attending, and an elderly General who expects to be meeting up with old army chums.

A local boatman takes the guests to the island, where they find a married couple acting as butler and housekeeper. The butler and his wife are two of the ten who have come to the island at the request of the owner, a Mr Owen.

When word arrives that Mr Owen has been held up and will not be joining the party immediately, the guests begin to discuss who this mysterious man might be. None of them have met him or have any idea who he is. Even the butler and housekeeper are in the dark, having taken up their positions on the island just days before the guests arrived.

In each of the bedrooms there is a printed nursery rhyme about ten little soldier boys. The rhyme begins ‘Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.’ As the verses go on, a soldier boy dies in each one, until the poem concludes with the words ‘And then there were none.’ In the dining room the guests notice ten small china soldier figures, which appear to represent the soldiers in the poem.

As the guests sit enjoying coffee after dinner on their first evening on the island, a disembodied voice suddenly fills the dining room. The voice details the names of each of the ten people staying in the house along with an accusation of murder committed on a certain date. The guests listen in astonishment as each of them is accused of a dreadful crime.

Not long after that, one of the guests chokes to death, and that night the housekeeper dies in her sleep. The butler is disturbed when he notices two of the little china figures have disappeared from the dining room. When the General is murdered by an unknown hand the following day and another china soldier disappears, it’s obvious that something decidedly sinister is going on. A search of the island reveals no possible hiding place for an eleventh person, and no sign of there being anyone else present.

The story carries on with rising tension as each of the original ten people meet their end by one means or another. When they are all dead the mystery remains: who killed them?

I quite often read Agatha Christie at bedtime, but I would recommend keeping this particular novel for daytime pleasure. From a reasonably innocuous beginning, a sense of menace increases as the book goes on. The tension builds once the killings start, and from then on there’s no let up until the culmination of the book.

There’s an author’s note at the beginning of the edition I have, taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she explains that she wrote the story because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated her. ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is often hailed her most brilliant novel, and it is indeed a superb creation, but this one is a real class act and has one of the cleverest plots of any novel I’ve read.