Mystery in White; a Christmas Crime Story

by J. Jefferson Farjeon

An erratic snow that first feeds hopes of a white Christmas and then turns to drizzle and mud and finally doubles back and becomes a blizzard drives this story.

As J. Jefferson Farjeon describes it, “Snowballs flew, snowmen grew. Sceptical children regained their belief in fairyland . . . By the 23rd it was news.  By the 24th it was a nuisance.”

For six people in a third class compartment on the 11:37 a.m. train from Euston to Manchester, it’s a threat to their plans for Christmas.

Chorus girl Jesse Noyes needs to meet a theatrical manager about a job. Clerk Robert Thomson is headed to visit a rich lonely aunt. Handsome and charming siblings Lydia and David Carrington are on their way to a Christmas house party. Mr. Hopkins, the bore who shared everything else, never says what his plans are. Edward Maltby, the strange old man, “whose eyes themselves became so peculiarly alive when they are opened — these eyes were like little lamps illuminating things invisible to others,” reports that he is a member of the Royal Psychical Society on his way to interview the long dead and beheaded King Charles I.

Stalled by blocked tracks ahead, the passengers first debate and then act on a plan to leave the train on foot for a branch line station at Hemmersby, about five miles away, in hopes of catching a train that can get through.

Despite deep drifts, blowing snow and the unfamiliar territory, they eventually come upon a house. The door is unlocked. The fires are lit. The table is set for tea. The kettle is even boiling on the stove. But there’s no one in the house. As cheery as the house seems initially to wet, cold travelers, it also provokes unwelcome, irrational fear.

This tale might remind you of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express without the glamor or any number of Golden Age of Detective Fiction country house party mysteries, but it is neither. The mystery revolves around the house and events that unfolded in it some 20 years earlier. The variety and randomness of the characters make it much more interesting than the typical country house party.

It also has elements of a ghost story (although it isn’t), in part because the observant Mr. Maltby is so astute in finding clues and their meaning. The puzzle of how a house in the middle of a blizzard could be so ready for visitors and so empty of a host will keep you engaged to the last page.

The Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1883 – 1955)

Joseph Jefferson Farjeon was a prolific English crime and mystery novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Detective fiction writer Dorothy L. Sayers, a contemporary, described him as “unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.”

One of his best known works was the play Number 17, which several times was made into a movie including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1932 version.  He also wrote the screenplay for “My Friend the King” (1932) and provided the story for “The Ghost Camera” (1933).

His grandfather was the American actor Joseph Jefferson.  His father, Benjamin Farjeon, was a prolific novelist who grew up in an impoverished immigrant Jewish family.  His brother Herbert was a dramatist and scholar. His second brother Harry was a composer.  His sister Eleanor, who died in 1965, was a well-known children’s author who composed the lyrics to the hymn, “Morning Has Broken,” which became a hit for singer Cat Stevens. His daughter, Joan Jefferson Farjeon (1913-2006), was a set designer.

Farjeon began his career working for Amalgamated Press in London for 10 years before going freelance. Writing on his own, he worked nine hours a day.

Although popular during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, his work had fallen out of the limelight until The British Library began reissuing novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction. Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story was republished in 2014 successfully. Two other books followed in 2015: Thirteen Guests and The Z Murders. A third, Seven Dead, was reissued by The British Library in 2017. The Collins Crime Club imprint reissued The House Opposite in 2015, which was followed by the other seven novels that feature the character Ben from Number 17. Ben is based on Farjeon’s father.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here