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: ‘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.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The body on the beach” by Simon Brett

This is the first novel in Simon Brett’s series featuring Carole and Jude, neighbours in the fictional English village of Fethering.

I hadn’t read this book before, but having got to know the central characters from later stories I was interested to find out how they first met.

The body on the beach
“The body on the beach” by Simon Brett (2000)

While walking her dog, Gulliver, early one morning, Carole comes across the dead body of a middle-aged man lying on the beach. While Carole’s looking at the body, Gulliver runs off into the sea and comes out soaked in sea water and smelling of something unsavoury. When she gets home, keen to prioritise giving the dog a bath, Carole does that before attending to anything else. It’s only once Gulliver is clean and snoozing in the kitchen that Carole gets round to phoning the police.

While she’s waiting for the police to come and interview her, Carole notices her new neighbour beating the dust out of a rug in her front garden. Shocked that someone should carry out such a domestic chore at the front of the house, Carole makes negative assumptions about her new neighbour. Taking a brief rest from her beating, Jude turns and sees Carole looking out of the window. Carole is horrified by to have been caught watching but feels compelled to go out and introduce herself.

After a short chat that leaves Carole frustratingly bereft of answers to the many questions she has about Jude, the police call round and Carole turns her attention to telling them about her find on the beach. The police immediately rub her up the wrong way by appearing to doubt her tale. Carole prides herself on being eminently sensible and reliable and to have the police question her truthfulness is a dreadful slight. At the end of the interview they tell her that they went to the beach before calling in to see her, following her clear instructions about where she had seen the body. There was, they said, only one problem with her version of events: there was no dead body on the beach.

Later in the day, still upset about not being believed by the police, Carole opens her front door to a rough-looking woman who wants to know if she, Carole, found a body on the beach that morning. Curious to know who this woman might be, Carole invites her in. The woman, who seems a bit hysterical, demands to know if Carole saw anyone move the body. Carole does her best to stay calm, but when the woman pulls a gun out of her jacket pocket and starts raving at her, she concludes the woman is far from sane. She tells the woman she’s going to phone the police, but the woman threatens to shoot her if she does. Carole is wondering what to do when she’s saved by the doorbell.

When she opens the door she finds her new neighbour, Jude, standing there. Needing a break from unpacking, Jude has called round round to see if Carole fancies going for a drink at the local pub. While Carole’s busy at the front door the gun-toting woman disappears out of the back door, leaving Carole perplexed and needing very much to get things off her chest. She goes to the pub with Jude and, uncharacteristically, unburdens herself. Her neighbour proves to be a good listener and, unlike the police, she believes Carole’s tale.

While reading later books in the Fethering series, I had grown curious about how Carole and Jude had first got together to solve crimes, and why it was that they took things into their own hands rather than reporting things to the police. ‘The body on the beach’ answered my questions, and I very much enjoyed this story. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this book 17/20.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie

This is one of Agatha Christie’s detective novels featuring the brilliant elderly spinster, Miss Jane Marple. The story takes place in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead and centres round the murder of Colonel Protheroe, a prominent but not very likeable local magistrate.

One Wednesday lunchtime, irritated by Colonel Protheroe’s interferences in church affairs, the local vicar declares to his wife and nephew that anyone who murdered the Colonel would be doing the world a favour. On the following day, Protheroe is found shot dead sitting in the vicar’s study, waiting to see him for a pre-arranged meeting.

Agatha Christie The murder at the vicarage
“The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

The book has all the ingredients of an enjoyable murder mystery: an attractive setting, a number of possible suspects, various motives, a didactic police detective and an unassuming but astute observer on the sidelines who ends up solving the crime.

The novel is told from the point of view of the vicar, Len Clement, one of the few characters in the story who respects and appreciates Miss Marple’s skills from the outset. Each intent on getting to the bottom of things, Clement and Marple team up to solve the mystery.

Len Clement’s position at the centre of the drama gives him unique access to the investigation. People feel able to confide in him and several of the suspects unburden themselves to him throughout the story. Alongside this, Miss Marple’s shrewdness and understanding of human nature allow her to form theories that completely escape the police and help the vicar to make sense of what people tell him.

The setting, a vicarage in a small English village, is the perfect place to stage a murder mystery, with its old-fashioned appeal and restricted cast of characters. In her masterly way, Agatha Christie keeps the reader guessing whodunnit till the end, revealing the solution in a typically unexpected and satisfying manner.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this novel in the past, but I look forward to reading it again some time in the future. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20.

Book review · England · Fiction

Book review: “Death on the downs” by Simon Brett

“Death on the downs” is the second of Simon Brett’s murder mysteries, based in the fictional English village of Fethering and featuring middle-aged amateur sleuths, Carole and Jude. I was pleased to find a copy of it going very cheap in a second-hand bookshop recently.

Neighbours in Fethering, Carole and Jude are similar in age but vastly different in personality and life experience. As with other literary detective duos, the contrast between them is what makes their partnership work.

Simon Brett Death on the downs
“Death on the downs” by Simon Brett (2001)

The story begins when Carole accidentally happens upon human remains. While out for a walk in the countryside one morning, she takes refuge in an old barn when it starts to rain. Inside the barn she accidentally tips over some fertiliser bags and a human bone falls out of one of them. When she gets back to her car she drives into the nearby village of Weldisham and phones the police from a call box to report her find. The police ask her to stay where she is until two of their officers arrive to speak to her and investigate her discovery.

One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Baylis, takes her to the local pub for a chat. The pub hasn’t yet opened for the day but the manager lets them in. Baylis asks the manager to provide drinks, despite it being out of licensing hours, and tells him to put the cost on his tab, with a wink that makes the manager look distinctly uncomfortable. Ever observant and curious, Carole wonders what sort of a hold Baylis has over the publican.

A little later, when the pub opens up to customers, Baylis leaves and Carole stays there on her own, having been provided with another drink on Baylis’s tab. Sitting in the pub nursing her brandy, Carole observes several local characters who turn up and start chatting to the manager and each other. To her great surprise, one of them mentions the human bones found in the barn. Wondering how her discovery has become known about so quickly, she takes a particular interest in the man who makes the comment. Discussions amongst her fellow customers lead to the suggestion that the bones belong to a girl who went missing from the village some time ago.

When Carole gets back home she discusses her experiences with Jude, who by chance knows the girl the customers in the pub were talking about. From then on, Carole and Jude do their utmost to find out more about the mysterious bag of bones, but the more involved they become the more they have to watch their backs. Certain people are not pleased to find Carole asking questions in the village, but she feels she’s getting closer to solving the mystery and refuses to curb her investigating. Meanwhile, Jude is looking into the circumstances surrounding the girl who went missing and beginning to draw disturbing conclusions. When Carole fails to return home after a visit to Weldisham, and her car is found parked outside the pub with the keys on the ground beside it, Jude realises her friend’s life may be in danger.

Although some of the conversations and situations in this book were a bit far-fetched, I found it an easy and entertaining read, and possibly the most enjoyable of the Fethering books I’ve read so far. Having been reading the novels out of chronological order, I’ve now ordered the first in the series from my local library to find out how Carole and Jude started out on their detective partnership. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this novel 16/20.