Wednesday 16 December 2015
Mystery in White
Mystery in White
by J. Jefferson Farjeon
British Library Crime Classics
I first became aware of Mystery In White sometime last Christmas, when one of the people I follow on Twitter posted a link which took me to an article where Waterstones, among others, were expressing astonishment that this relatively obscure novel (in terms of today’s writing celebrities), written in 1937 and reprinted fairly recently, was actually outselling a lot of modern writers and giving them all a run for their money. I don’t know why Mystery In White has been so successful decades after the writer died but, I’m guessing, it’s partly to do with the attractive cover illustration of an old steam train trapped in the snow at night and partly the inclusion of the strap line beneath the title proclaiming it to be “A Christmas Crime Story”. It’s nice to read something relatively Christmassy at this time of year and so I made a mental note to order a copy when that time came around again... so I could check it out this year.
In terms of the kind of book it is... well I’ve read a fair few books written around this time but they mostly tend to be either American adventure stories like the Doc Savage yarns or something like The Saint stories by Leslie Charteris. Mostly blood and thunder action with extremely witty dialogue and a fast, often globe-hopping, pace to them. Mystery In White is nothing like that in its genetic make-up, although it is very well written. If anything, it brings to mind the work of famous British crime writer Agatha Christie in that it’s a nice, gentle read with the set up and solving of the puzzle at hand taking the place of any action, for the most part. My understanding is that Farjeon himself was once a household name in mysteries while he was alive (one of his books was even inspiration for a Hitchcock thriller) but he seems to have slipped away from the limelight in the decades since then, it looks like to me.
The majority of the action in this one, for example, takes place in a snowed-in house, filled up entirely with people who are strangers to each other. Some of these people we are following right from the start of the story, as a group of passengers are stranded on a train in the heavy blizzard which gives the book its title and decide to go off looking for the next stop. However, the conditions are so bad that, instead, they stumble into a house, fully stocked with laid out tables of food and beds... but with a mystery laying in its heart. There is also evidence of something more sinister going on as these people are joined by various characters over the course of the novel, which takes place entirely during Christmas Eve and then into a few hours of Christmas Day.
The first thing which hit me about the book... and which won my trust even on page one... was the writer’s interesting, sometimes poetic, turn of phrase. He takes a page or so setting up the raging, unstoppable blizzard which has hit Britain and which is crucial to the set up of the story. For example, he starts off saying...
“On the 22nd it was still snowing. Snowballs flew, snowmen grew”.
...which I really liked... enough to note it on my iPhone for later use. He then continues, on the very same page, to picture for the reader the absolute unstoppable onslaught of the weather in terms thusly...
“It grew beyond the boundaries of local interest. By the 23rd it was news. By the 24th it was a nuisance.”
This is great stuff. He’s able to conjure up the worsening weather conditions of his fiction and the collected national attitude towards it in just a few short sentences... an economic use of words to set a scene if ever I saw one. He also, it turns out, has a very good grasp of things otherworldly... both the explainable and unexplainable, as it happens.
For instance, one of the characters is taken ill fairly early on in the novel and, when we visit him at a later point in the story, this person has gone into a dream state delirium which the writer conjures up most assuredly. He does this using very clear and concise descriptions of the dream, as it plays out in the young man’s head, which are extraordinary in their vivid mixture of logic coupled with a sense of the absurd. This is a really good handle on the kind of nonsense one stumbles upon in dreams, of course. The utter believability and ‘matter-of-factness’ of the internal workings of the thoughts bounding around the character’s head in this sequence lend it some weight and are definitely something that anybody who’s had a half remembered or waking dream will be able to identify with absolutely. I was very impressed with this little moment in the novel.
That’s the ‘explainable’ other wordly phenomena I was talking about but as to the other... well there’s a strong shot of the supernatural poured into the pages of this novel, that’s for sure. The main male protagonist, who takes on the role of the 'would-be detective' in the situation our small group of people find themselves in, is an ageing parapsychologist, of sorts. Applying logic and reason to strange phenomena while embracing the idea of spirits and ghosts wholeheartedly. Farjeon, it has to be said, weaves this supernatural element into the story and it somehow becomes ravelled into the mystery of the house and the death of the occupants (all stumbled upon after the fact rather than observed first hand by the reader or, it has to be said, many of the characters). There are several moments in the course of the novel where you might find yourself wondering if you are reading just a mystery or a ghost story but... well, for one thing, I don’t want to spoil the story for you and tell you where the tale takes you and, two, due to one particular element in the story which I don’t think is adequately covered by any explanations in the denouement of the tale, I’m still not a hundred percent sure myself. Let’s just say that it’s a pleasant blend of elements from both the mystery story and gothic literature (just a smattering) and I’ll leave you to discover the rest on your own.
Another interesting thing about this novel, and I was especially surprised by this coming from the pen of a male writer in the 1930s, was the strength of mind and resilience of the female characters, all of whom come across as fiercely independent whilst not sacrificing their femininity for the usual male traits exhibited often when women are pushed into the foreground of a piece of art... be it literature, painting or movie making. For instance, look at these words from the sister of one of the male protagonists to a showgirl, both of whom were in the train from the outset of the story...
“My dear, you and I are what are popularly known as ‘the women’ - we’re not to know things! David and I nearly had a row about it.”
This is cool stuff for a novel released in 1937 and although strong supporting characters like Pat Savage (Doc Savage’s cousin) were cropping up in novels around this time, there’s something about those two sentences that really push home the concept of the roots of the problems which give rise to the legacy of modern feminism, I reckon. It’s another example of the concise nature of this writer’s text that he’s able to sum it up so succinctly with so few words... which seems to be a hallmark of Farjeon’s prose, if this story is anything to judge it by.
At the end of the day, Mystery In White is, in fact, nothing much more than a cosy little, supernatural tinted murder mystery which has the novelty value of taking place over the 24th and 25th December and, in this particular case, also has the advantage of being extremely well written by a writer who knows how to conjure up moods and atmospheres with a modicum of raw materials. It’s light reading, for sure, but it is extremely comforting to go back to this kind of more simplistic and, perhaps, more clever form of writing and I suspect that this last element has a lot to do with its recent success in sales too. Word of mouth still carries a lot of clout these days... even if it’s done through social media. If you like the odd, very English mystery story and you want something which is comfortable and not too challenging in its style and content, then Mystery in White is a good thing to be reading over Christmas. I think I might try to find a Christmas mystery to read in the countdown to the pinnacle of the season again in subsequent years... thanks to this novel giving me a taste of possible things to come.