On Christmas Day in Richmond, Virginia the temperature reached a balmy 75 degrees. No white Christmas in these parts, or in much of the country for that matter. Then I found a copy of Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon under the tree, a gift from my sister. I sat down to enjoy a white Christmas vicariously. I sure got snow. It snowed through the whole story, only stopping just before the end.
Mystery in White, originally published in 1937, was reissued by the British Library in 2014 as part of their crime classics series. According to the Independent it was a surprise runaway Christmas hit that year, outselling Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
From the back cover of Mystery in White:
On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea—but no one is at home.
Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.
Mystery in White at first seems like the classic English country manor mystery, but a closer look reveals stark differences. The classic style typically features a gathering of upper class guests for a weekend house party and the murder suspects are limited to the house guests. The characters populating Mystery in White are a motley crew of marooned travelers cut off from the outside world by several feet of snow; plus other “suspicious” characters enter and leave the house, widening the circle of suspects. The tea and fire may suggest a coziness that contrasts with the blizzard raging outside, but the house suffers from a coldness of the spirit that all the tea and fire in the world could not relieve.
What is classic about Mystery in White is the know-it-all detective who puts the puzzle pieces together ;-).
Joseph Jefferson Farjeon (1883 – 1955) was an English crime novelist, playwright and screenwriter. I’m surprised I’d never heard of him as he wrote over sixty novels, as well as short stories and plays. But he was quite well-known during the Golden Age of detective fiction (the period between the two world wars). Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that Farjeon was “unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.”
His most famous work is Number Seventeen, a play that Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen in 1932. You can watch Number Seventeen on YouTube in its entirety here. Hitchcock makes liberal use of his light-and-shadow technique and ends the short film with a terrific chase scene between a bus and a runaway train.
English crime writer Martin Edwards wrote the introduction to Mystery in White. Mr. Edwards included an interesting tidbit: Farjeon’s sister, Eleanor Farjeon, an author of children’s stories, plays, and poetry, wrote the words to the children’s hymn “Morning has Broken,” popularized by Cat Stevens in 1971 (is that a six degrees of separation sort of thing?). Listen to “Morning Has Broken” here.
I must say that I’m delighted to meet a “new” author, one who turned my near-tropical Christmas very, very white. If you enjoy vintage mysteries, find a copy of Mystery in White. The British Library also reissued Farjeon’s The Z Murders and Thirteen Guests.
For more information on Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, click here.
Read the article from the Independent on the surprising success of the Mystery in White reissue here (above photo of Jefferson Farjeon is from this article).
Read an analysis of Number Seventeen here.