I bought three copies of this book, two as gifts and one for myself, it seemed that it would make for perfect festive reading, a snow bound vintage murder mystery set at Christmas, lovely! This is also my first British Library crime novel, a series I have been wanting to read since I read about them on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Shiny New Books.
J.Jefferson Farjeon was apparently the author of more than sixty crime and thriller novels, yet I confess I hadn’t heard of him before. In his day he was very popular and highly thought of by the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers. Certainly I found this an easy, engaging mystery, and Farjeon a great creator of atmosphere and suspense.
On Christmas Eve extraordinarily heavy snow brings a a train full of passengers to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. In one carriage a group of passengers, previously unknown to one another have struck up a conversation. Brother and sister, David and Lydia Carrington, Jessie Noyes, a chorus girl, Thomson, a young clerk and Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society, travelling with them is a middle aged bore (only later do we and the characters come to think of him as Mr Hopkins). Having all been irritated beyond endurance by the bore, the group begin to consider leaving the train and trying to walk to the village. When Mr Maltby, apparently spotting someone or something in the white out takes off after it, the others, leaving the bore and the train behind decide to do like wise and take off after Mr Maltby.
In such conditions, it is virtually impossible for anyone to find their way, and soon Jessie, the Carringtons and Thomson having lost all sight and sound of Mr Maltby are in desperate need of shelter, especially with Jessie having badly twisted her ankle. It is at this moment they come across a house.
They looked into a comfortable, spacious hall. It was early afternoon, and the light had not yet begun to fade noticeably, but the hall glowed with a queer white firmness, reflecting the imprisoning snow outside the widows. It glowed also with something more welcome, a large wood fire. The logs stacked by the grate had a pleasantly seasonable aspect, and the quiet peace of the hall was a comforting contrast to the wild whirling from which they had just escaped. The only thing absent to complete the welcome was their host.
The door is open, and on entering they find a fire burning, a kettle boiling, tea laid and no one at home, a bread knife lying on the floor. Reluctantly the four decide to avail themselves of the facilities and begin to settle themselves in while naturally wondering where on earth the home owners might be. Exploring upstairs David comes across a locked door behind which he is sure he can hear a muffled noise, later the door is unlocked, the room apparently bare. With the tea made the four are soon joined by Mr Maltby driven in by the snow, and he brings a stranger with him. Where this man Smith, has come from no one knows. Mr Maltby takes quiet charge of the situation, discovering some of the few clues they have to work with.
David fought a feeling of annoyance. Mr Maltby, though a late-comer, had assumed a subtle command of the situation, and there was no reason that David could see, apart from the question of his sixty years, why he should do so. He had not merely changed the pleasant family atmosphere by emphasising the sinisterness of the place, an atmosphere which David had hoped to live down, but he was setting his own tempo.
Where are the householders? Who is the mysterious cockney Mr Smith? Who is the man in the painting above the fireplace? Why is Jessie so afraid of the feeling she gets from the bed in which she has been put to rest her foot? Is the house really haunted? More questions arise with another arrival from the snow bound train, Mr Hopkins – the bore – who has a shocking tale to relate from the stricken train.
This is an atmospheric, vintage mystery, cleverly plotted, it made for a nice bit of festive reading in the two days before Christmas itself. Farjeon takes his readers along unexpected paths in this novel, which the reader can’t really begin to guess at, as we, like the characters themselves are not possessed of all the facts.