The Z Murders – J. Jefferson Farjeon British Library Crime Classics

Another Book, another British Library crime classic? I read this one a couple of weeks ago and have only just got round to writing about it.  I’m still baffled at the system for releasing these reprints; I bought Murder of a Lady in October in Lincoln, even though it is not due to be released until January….Ho hum.

Anyway, back to this book. I wrote about The Thirteen Guests recently, the book also by this author set in the 1930s.  Whereas that book tended towards the country house mystery, this book starts with a journey, and by the end much of the country has been traversed. This book is probably the better for it; there is a genuine murder mystery here, with car and train journeys which make everyone a potential danger. The hero, Richard Temperley, has good reason to be suspicious, as his early morning arrival at Euston station is transformed by a seemingly inexplicable murder.  The police become friends and foes alternatively, as a woman is in the case. As you may expect from a book written in 1932, the lady  in question is not given the most proactive role, but her journeys are literally drive the action. There is one of the most sinister characters I have ever read about in a crime classic, as well as some really interesting taxi drivers.

I really enjoyed this book. Both the main characters and later subsidiary drivers come over as people with some ‘backstory’, not just functionaries to help the plot along. The atmosphere (with appropriate fog) is really tense as the pursued become the pursuers and the police provide a vital role in chasing and finding out at the same time as the reader what is (probably, possibly) going on and why. The letter Z is a returning theme as a linking factor in seemingly unrelated crimes and pulls much of the action together. This is a very visual read, and I can quite see it as a black and white film with old cars and a daring hero. I would also point out that for anyone who cannot visualise a map of Britain  may well need to consult a map by the end of the book, as it describes the English countryside and some of the plot in some geographical detail. I enjoyed its pace and tension. The body count is a bit high, and there is an impressive amount of fear and confusion. Overall, definitely one of the fastest moving novels in this series, though not the most humorous by any stretch of the imagination.

I am really enjoying this series of crime classics, and am more or less keeping up with each book released. The three collections of short mystery stories, including the new Silent Nights, Christmas Mysteries take a lot more reading. Overall, I think I prefer the full novels, but I notice many more anthologies of short stories are being released, including the desirable Penguin British Short stories which looks very interesting, if only for its historical volume. Something to look forward to if I can only save my pennies….?!?

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon – A British Library Crime Classic

So, a completely different book to review. I’m managing (just about) to keep up with the British Library Crime Classic series; but it’s not easy! Even booksellers I have spoken to are confused as to when the books are actually coming out, and working out which is genuinely new and which is a new jacket on an existing book makes it even more confusing. By the time you add in the Thriller series I am a little bewildered! However, as the series is uniformly good with some real highlights such as  Quick Curtain I will keep going. They also look good on the shelves and are fairly robust… a consideration when I am carrying them around…

Anyway, back to the book. 

I actually read this book  a while ago. It is a competent, interesting country house mystery written to a high standard. When a hapless rail passenger suffers an injury at a country station he is taken up by a glamorous guest at Bragley Court. Nadine turns out to be a woman who inspires helpless devotion in many men, and when John Foss is taken by her to the big house, he too falls under her spell. The title emerges from the realisation by the hosts that John makes thirteen guests at the house party, though as he did not appear last another guest is actually the thirteenth to arrive. I must confess that I long since forgot who that was, as several guests are already present and some are longer term than others. An artist is painting the portrait of the daughter of the house and it is this painting which is damaged. A journalist tries to find out what is really going on, while others go hunting with interesting results.

The problem with this book is the sheer number of characters. Residents, guests, servants and locals  add up to an impressive number of suspects when murder is done, and I would not be surprised if the Detective who turns up gives up in despair. This rather goes against the whole idea of a limited number stuck in a house of which at least one must be the murderer. If it is murder. I was a bit confused…

The characters in the novel, having said all that, are really well worked out. The beautiful but rebellious daughter, the cynical journalist, the artist pondering dead dogs and painting, the ambitious political calculator. I really liked Nadine, who is well aware of her effect on males. John is a useful character, in the house but not really part of the party, which gives him perspective.  The background of a large house and a fox hunt is a natural setting for the ‘action’, and this is a successful 1930s mystery which feels authentic, originally published in 1936. The ending is satisfactory and most if not all the loose ends are tied up. I enjoyed it, and to an extent it is better than The Mystery in White of last Christmas at least in terms of real characters. I would recommend it as a worthy addition to the series.