Mystery fans have different tastes. Some prefer cozies, others read only police procedurals. Although I love the tough-guy-and-gal detectives of Sara Paretsky and Elmore Leonard, I usually go for the cozies. I am very fond of Golden Age Detective Classics of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
I recently read J. Jeffererson Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests (1936).
If you do not know Farjeon, you are not alone. He wrote over 60 novels, but most are out of print. A few have recently been reissued in The British Library’s Crime Classics, a series of mysteries rediscovered in the British Library. Poisoned Pen Press is now publishing the series in the U.S.
Thirteen Guests is a country house party mystery. If you have read Agatha Christie’s The Affair at Styles (and countless others like it), you are familiar with the “closed circle” of suspects: one of the guests is the murderer.
Farjeon is an expert plotter but the setting-up of the plot is slow. I plodded on, trusting in the British Library. It begins at a train station: John Foss has an accident disembarking from a train. Nadine Leveridge, a charming widow who disembarked before him without incident, insists on giving him a ride to the village doctor’s house. When they learn the doctor is at Bragley Court, which happens to Nadine’s destination, they drive on. It is the home of Lord Aveling, a Conservative politician giving a house party.
Once we arrive at Bragley Court, the pace picks up and the writing gets sharper. Lord Aveling invites John, who cannot walk on his injured foot, to stay. The savvy politician thinks it might be good PR: he has invited a gossip columnist for the weekend. He is slightly concerned about having thirteen guests now, among whom are a mystery writer, a Liberal politician, and an actress. But it will be the thirteenth to arrive, the menacing Mr. Chater, who will be unlucky.
Things soon start to go wrong. Two of the better-developed characters are Leicester Pratt, an artist, and Lionel Bultin, a gossip columnist. Both have sold out for fame. First, Pratt finds that his painting of Lord Aveling’s daughter Anne has been defaced in the studio. Then a dog is discovered with its throat slit. The next day, a stranger (who is not a stranger to at least one of the guests) is found strangled. Chater disappears during a fox hunt and is discovered dead. Bultin takes elaborate notes for his column and notices odd things no one else does. Bultin and Pratt discuss the murders.
There is much anxiety and fear, and when a brash detective is called in, he depends to a large extent on Bultin’s notes and John’s impressions. John, confined to a loungehall and anteroom, outside of the action, is an excellent observer. But he is afraid to tell all he knows. He worries that the likable Ann, the daughter of Aveling, might be guilty. Nadine assures him that it cannot be so.
The chemistry between John and Nadine is charming.
This is an entertaining whodunit, and there are, as Dorothy Sayers said of his work, some “creepy” elements, like the death of the dog. Not all the characters are well-developed, but there is plenty of suspense. Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story was a best-seller in the UK last Christmas. It is always great fun to discover a new (old) writer, and I look forward to reading more of his books.