Mystery In White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

IMG_1968Should you be heading home for Christmas on a train, then this is the perfect little novel with which to fritter away some pre-Yule time before you are forced to make polite conversation and pass the mistletoe. Another in the great British Library Crime Classics imprint, Mystery In White has everything you could want for the season of goodwill: a railway carriage full of distinctive stereotypes (a tiresome bore, some bright young things, a laconic old gent, aspiring actress, diffident clerk and so on), thick snow falling, an unexpected detour, a deserted country house cut off from the world, a murderer on the loose, some psychic nonsense and, of course, a comedy Cockney. (The last one is optional). Actually, this is the least convincing Cock-er-nay since Dick van Dyke trod the boards at Burbank in Mary Poppins. (Sample dialogue: ‘Wotcher mean?’ demanded Smith. ‘I can try and find a stashun if I want to, can’t I, without arskin’ nobody’s permishun – ‘). You see what I mean: phonetic spelling is almost always a mistake and all that’s missing in this case is the Pearly King outfit. But anyway. Smith is a working class wrong’un who makes everyone else nervous with his unconvincing utterances. Because there are a few things about their situation that just don’t add up: for example, why has the house they have by chance arrived at got a lit fire and tea things ready – but no actual people in it? And what’s moving about in an upstairs room? Someone in these cases has to take the amateur sleuth role, and Mr. Edward Maltby steps forward. He knows a great deal. In fact, he seems to know everything. It’s a bit unsettling. And, I say, what on earth was that scream outside? The set-up foreshadows Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and has a dash of And Then There Were None thrown in. Not that J. Jefferson Farjeon is a patch on Christie as a writer, but he knows his way around the mechanics of plot and it’s all comforting enough. So whodunnit? Crime is almost always about money, even if the house does appear haunted and the old portrait seems to follow you with its eyes.

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