Friday, September 25, 2015

FFB: The Jefferson Farjeon Reprint Mystery

In light of the unusual interest in long forgotten mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon and the unrivaled popularity of the recent reprint edition of Mystery in White I thought I'd look at some of his novels that aren't getting the attention of the British Library Crime Classics imprint. Seven Dead (1939) is one they somehow overlooked yet to me is a better candidate for a reprint edition as it highlights Farjeon's skills in narrative experimentation, suspense and is overall one of the more original spins on a detective novel plot from the Golden Age.

As the title suggests the crux of the plot is the discovery of seven corpses found in a locked and shuttered room in a remote seaside cottage. They all show signs of the throes of a violent death but no trace of wounds on any of their bodies. The crime scene is investigated first by amateur Tom Hazeldean, a reporter and yachtsman, and Inspector Kendall. Entranced by a portrait of a young girl that has been inexplicably pierced by a bullet Hazeldean is determined to track down the subject of the painting, now a grown woman. She and her uncle were the occupants of the cottage called Haven House and he is sure they know what happened to the victims. Hazeldean heads to Boulogne after some initial inquiries indicate that Mr. Fenner and his niece were headed that way.

The book begins with the viewpoint of an itinerant pickpocket and thief who stumbles upon the crime scene after breaking into the house through the only open window, shifts to Hazeldean and then Hazeldean and Kendall. When Hazeldean heads off to France (for nearly one third of the book) the book morphs from detective novel into an adventure novel with the reporter as protagonist and Dora Fenner as the damsel in distress. The plot also takes on the air of a romantic thriller with several set pieces featuring our hero and heroine being captured and rescued and several supporting characters filling in as villains of one color or another. This section ends with a cliffhanger and then the story flashes back to England.

Back at Haven House the narrative style and mood switches back to the original detective novel mode as we follow Inspector Kendall and his police team through their investigation of the multiple murders and their desperate attempt to uncover the victims' identities. Most of all the plot is concerned with why all seven people were dispatched at once in the locked room. However, Farjeon has not devised an impossible crime mystery, for the murderer merely locked his victims in the room and left them to their fate in a fiendishly devised deathtrap. Rather the author is more concerned with the slow reveal of the motivation for the mass murder.

Like a good old fashioned detective novel we are treated to the discovery of tire tracks, footprints, other odd clues, and a mix of insightful deductions based on observation of human behavior. There is a well done scene in which Kendall and his Dogberry-like cohort Sgt. Wade follow the trail of a bicycle and discover the surprise method of the killer's escape. "If you weren't smarter than your conversation, Wade," Kendall says to his sergeant, "I'd have you in the bush to join the bicycle. Fortunately, during the past few hours I've found out that you are much more useful than you sound, even if sometimes it's only by accident." Poor Sgt. Wade is the butt of many such insulting jokes. Not as oblivious as Shakespeare's premiere sputtering and ineffectual head of the night watch Wade is nonetheless included for comic relief.

In the end Farjeon once again resorts to a shift in the narrative point of view and has the entire story resolved in an intricate tale of a shipwreck, survival on a desert island, and a horrific revenge plot all of which is recorded in the pages of a diary. The finale has a tendency to go way over the top in Farjeon's insistence on adding twist after twist, but you can't deny that he knows the definition of thriller when he sets out to write one. Seven Dead is a prime example of Farjeon at the top of his game and exemplifies his hallmark in the genre -- the use of narrative tricks and stylistic experimentation.

The same cannot be said of The Z Murders (1932), a much earlier effort that owes a lot to the work of John Buchan than it does to John Dickson Carr. Barely containing a smidgen of the usual plot elements of the traditional detective novel though it is in essence the story of the tracking down of a serial killer, The Z Murders is an outright pursuit thriller calling to mind in many of its scenes classic adventure novels like The 39 Steps.

Richard Temperley operating on a mixture of gallantry and instinct goes out of his way to protect a person of interest in a series of murders. In turn he is pursued by police who feel Temperley will lead them to Sylvia Wynne, the person of interest. The murders seem inspired by the kind of thing found in the pages of Edgar Wallace as a crimson Z made of metal has been left at each crime scene. Intended to baffle the police and signify the work of a mad killer working for some secret society a modern reader may easily see through the deception almost immediately. This is the kind of hackneyed device, already overused in the 1930s, is astonishingly still being used by modern writers of gruesome serial killer novels.

Farjeon writes of his characters being "implicated in the same mosaic." Mosaic is a good analogy for this kind of conspiracy thriller. Seemingly random encounters and strangers act as the colored tiles of a mosaic. When assembled together in the proper pattern they create the full picture and lead to a clearing up of the mystery. This "all things are connected" philosophy shows up again at the beginning of Chapter 17 ("What Happened at Midnight"). Farjeon points out the ironic positive effects of crime and uses as examples the taxi drivers and newsboys who benefit from a sudden rise in their income.

Fast paced and action filled The Z Murders' through line is impeded by repetition notably in the tiffs and spats Richard and Sylvia engage in. Sometimes this banter is entertaining and reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick's sparring wit but in Farjeon's hands each reiteration becomes increasingly annoying. Another irksome gimmick is Richard's tendency to have conversation with himself. His thinking to himself rather than described in prose is rendered as dialogue and the narration even takes on his persona. While this is yet another instance of Farjeon's experimentation I found it to be cutesy and bothersome. Similarly, a Q&A between a police inspector and a "village idiot" rendered as a prose monologue rather than dialogue exists only as a writer's trick and fails to serve the story. The entire middle section of the book drags with the aforementioned tiffs, narrative play and protracted scenes of melodrama. The fifth example of an argument between Richard and Sylvia in which he demands information and she offers nothing almost had me closing the book and never finishing it.

Ultimately, The Z Murders is far too familiar and not as exciting or original as Seven Dead. Why then was something as tiresomely formulaic as The Z Murders chosen to be reprinted while a book as daring and convention breaking as Seven Dead continues to languish in the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom? The mysteries of reprint publishing are often too baffling for me to contemplate.

The Z Murders is available from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. They have also reprinted Farjeon's Thirteen Guests which seems to be more in the line of Mystery in White, being yet another country house style detective novel. I have not read that book, but I'll continue to delve into the work of Jefferson Farjeon. He is one of the most unique narrative experimenters of the Golden Age alongside Milward Kennedy. By the way...why aren't his books being reprinted?

19 comments:

  1. I am pleased that Farjeon and so many other authors are getting read again, but I agree, the rationale for the success in some cases seems a bit hard to understand. However, SEVEN DEAD sounds great - and I think i have it tucked away on a shelf - thanks John, definitely going to look this one up!

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    1. Do you really have a copy? Lucky you! I chose it because of the title and read the blurb and thought this one ought to be really good. And it was. *So much* better than Z MURDERS! Through sheer coincidence I had a copy of Z MURDERS and I read it months ago before it was released in the new edition but was so underwhelmed I wasn't going to review it at all. Then I stumbled across a rather positive review on Peggy Ann's blog and I told her I had a different opinion of it. So here it is.

      I have three other Farjeon books to read/review -- none of them have been chosen to be reprinted. I'm interested, however, in reading THIRTEEN GUESTS. Sounds like a Christie plot idea. We have an independent book store in Chicago (Unabridged Books) that carries the British Library imprint so I'll actually be able to buy a copy the old fashioned way!

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    2. I'm positively thrilled to have this on my TBR now, albeit with one caveat - I have this one in an Italian translation LA CASE DEI SETTE CADAVERI but after your review I can't wait (and it is a very nice edition by the way - they love Golden Age crime in Italy)

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  2. I envy Sergio having a 'copy tucked away'. It sounds like my kind of book. Another author I'm adding to my vintage TBR list but since he's being reprinted I have hopes of tracking him down. Though I do prefer cheapie old copies if I can find them. John, SEVEN DEAD reminds me of the Conan Doyle short story, THE ADVENTURE OF THE DEVIL'S FOOT. Remember that one? A group of people dead in a cottage? That was also a tale of terrible revenge.

    Jefferson Farjeon. (What a moniker.) - I'm officially on the look-out.

    Tell me more about Milward Kennedy. Or have you already? If so, point me to it. I wonder if his intimate friends ever called him, 'Milly.'

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    1. Martin Edwards has written extensively on his blog about Milward Kennedy. I've read three of Kennedy's detective novels (one is actually a round robin collaboration) but I've not reviewed any of them here. Martin has done a better job and is so much more concise than I am!

      Here's a link where you can read all the Milward Kennedy reviews on Martin's blog. The list is mostly made up of reviews of Kennedy's mysteries, some posts only tangentially mention him.

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  3. What a great review; thanks, John. Enough information to make me want one book and not want the other, which is perfectly balanced ;-) I share your opinion of the Buchan-esque novel. I reviewed Farjeon's "The Judge Sums Up" a while ago and it reminded me more of Anthony Berkeley than anything else, which for me is high praise. And I also agree -- why isn't anyone reprinting Milward Kennedy?

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    1. In a perfect world I would win a hefty prize the next time I purchased an instant lottery ticket, could quit my mind numbing day job, and start the independent press I've been dreaming of for years now. I'd reprint loads of books that are worth reprinting that would delight hundreds of readers. This is why my father always called me a worthless dreamer!

      With Martin Edwards' influence I'm sure one or two Kennedy books could see the light of day fairly soon. Are you reading and listening, Martin? :^D

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  4. Yes, Bloodymurder is lucky to have a copy of Seven Dead. It is virtually impossible to get a reasonably priced copy.

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    1. That's nothing new over here, Santosh. Sorry...

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  5. I have just bought Thirteen Guests as the summary given in Amazon seemed interesting.
    I find that The House Opposite involving the character Ben is being released on 31st December 2015, while another 7 books all involving the same character Ben (including No.17 on which the Alfred Hitchcock movie with the same title was based) will be released on 11th August 2016. All these 8 books are being published by Collins Crime Club.

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    1. Thanks for the info, Santosh. I had not known anything about HarperCollins' "Detective Club" reprint series. Interesting to see all the Ben the Tramp books are planned for re-release. I recently mentioned in a blog comment somewhere (I think Peggy Ann's blog) that someone ought to reprint those. Pure coincidence, I'm sure. I've just ordered the Bernard Capes book (SKELETON KEY) and CALLED BACK by Hugh Conway. I'm not especially thrilled with this collection of titles as nearly all of them --from THE TERROR to THE GRELL MYSTERY-- are extremely easy to obtain in the used book market. And do we really need another reprint of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

      But of the unusual titles by authors who deserve to be reprinted I am very excited to see that there is a Vernon Loder title to be released soon -- MYSTERY AT STOWE. Excellent! I think that one is particularly fun and recommend you get a copy when it's made available. I reviewed that several years ago: The Mystery of Stowe

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    2. Yes, you mentioned in Peggy Ann's blog. I didn't know that Ben the Tramp was the inspiration for Curt's blog name.
      I find that very cheap kindle editions of several Vernon Loder books (though not Mystery At Stowe) are available published by Black Heath Classic Crime.

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    3. You have not mentioned in the above review that in your Collins copy of The Z Murders, Poirot is spelt as Poiret, though you made a note of it on Post-it and stuck it in the book !

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    4. But now you've done it for me! Thanks. :^)

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  6. Really enjoyed your post and Seven Dead sounds like a book to look out for. I've read Mystery in White which I really enjoyed and also Thirteen Guests which I thought was good but not as good (review of which can be found here: https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/j-jefferson-farjeons-thirteen-guests-1936/). Got The Z Murders in my TBR pile, but it seems you're not the only one who I've talked to who didn't think it was up to much, so will be interesting to see what it's like when I finally get around to reading it.

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    1. Thanks, Kate. I'm just not a fan of Edgar Wallace knock offs these days. I've read too many of them and most of them seem all the same to me by now. I've got a "Been there, done that" kind of attitude towards them. The writer really has to do something different in order to interest me. I just became too aware of his narrative tricks and there really is an awful lot of repetition in THE Z MURDERS.

      I've just added your blog to the "Rolling, Rollling, Rolling" list over there on the right. Many interesting posts you've done since June. I have a lot to catch up on!

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    2. Thanks! And yeah I know what you mean when you read a novel and you feel like you've been there before. I had that problem with the last book I reviewed The Murderer by George Simenon as it felt too similar to books like Frances Iles' Malice Aforethought, which was written much better.

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  7. SEVEN DEAD sounds a bit similar in feel to AT THE GREEN DRAGON which also mixes thriller, mystery and romance elements. And quite entertainingly.

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  8. Finally caught up with this great post, John! I must read Seven Dead - which is not a book I've come across. To be contrary, The Z Murders is actually my favourite Farjeon (of those I've read) I put it ahead of 13 Guests and Mystery in White, but I quite accept that most people prefer one or other of the latter books. All a matter of personal taste, of course. Turning to Milward Kennedy, I am keen to see him back in print, but we have been unable to trace the owners of the rights in his books.

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