John Foss, a young man in a state of distraction, gets his foot caught while leaving the train at the country station of Flensham. Badly injured, he providentially finds himself sharing a platform with the beautiful Mrs Leveridge, who is on her way to a house party at the nearby Bragley Court. She takes John along with her, so that he can receive the attention of a doctor and rest in comfort, correctly judging that their host Lord Aveling won’t mind stretching his hospitality to another guest. But, as John is warmly greeted and installed on a couch, he realises that his presence means there will be thirteen guests at this weekend’s party. And, as the other guests trickle in, John finds himself watching to see who will be the thirteenth to pass through the doorway. He swiftly sees that all is not well at Bragley. Secrets and dislike ripple beneath the polite surface and there are strange alliances and tensions between unexpected groups of guests. And he is right to be uneasy, for by the end of the weekend three people will be dead…
Another volume in the British Library Crime Classics series, this introduces an old-school country-house mystery, which reads almost like the blueprint for one of the Murder Mystery parties you can buy to play out with friends. The guests are an incongruous mixture of the wealthy, the professional and the plain unlikely. (Farjeon has quite a flair for turns of phrase, so I can’t resist quoting slightly more than unusual.) It’s only fair to begin with the dazzling, widowed Nadine Leveridge (‘A woman for fools to fear‘), who rescues our unfortunate hero from the platform at Flensham:
Puritans and Victorians would have called her too attractive. Her hair was tinged with bronze. Her nose delighted your thoughts and defied your theories. Her complexion was too perfect. Her frankly ridiculous lips annoyed you because by all the rules of sanity they should have disgusted you, yet they did not.
On being installed at Bragley, John meets the others, starting with county cricketer Harold Taverley, a stout and sportsmanlike fellow who seems to be a particular chum of Lord Aveling’s daughter Anne. Then there’s Leicester Pratt, the artist of the moment, who has been commissioned to paint Anne who, it is implicitly hoped, will soon be married off in a deft political match with Sir James Earnshaw, current Liberal MP and perhaps to be swayed towards the Conservative cause. There’s the self-important novelist Edyth Fermoy-Jones (‘Accent, please, on the Fermoy‘), who has been brought in to impress the wealthy but vulgar Rowe family – father, mother and daughter, the latter rather less vulgar than her parents – who have made a fortune from sausages and might just be persuaded to fund political ambitions. There’s the self-consciously vivacious actress Zena Wilding, who has been brought in to add a touch of glitz to proceedings and who hopes that Lord Aveling might sponsor her next play.
And perhaps Lord Aveling is in a perfect state of mind to be charmed by a pretty young woman (‘He was in the position of many men of his age. He had never been unfaithful, and he was beginning to wonder why; and the wonder sometimes made conversation with pretty women difficult’). There’s the gossip columnist Lionel Bultin, arbiter of style and the social whirl: the only thing worse than being stung by Bultin’s tongue is not being mentioned by him at all. Finally, there are the Chaters, an unpleasant couple invited at the request of Sir James Earnshaw, who seems faintly embarrassed to have them there at all (‘When the husband looked straight at you he seemed to be seeing round a corner. The wife hardly ever looked straight at you. She was a silent creature whose moroseness appeared to form her protection against a perpetual desire to scream‘). And that, apart from poor John Foss immobilised on the ante-room couch, is that.
At first everything goes as planned. People drift around and say clever things (‘“Is niceness a vice?” “Yes – like water. You must have something with it”‘), have elegant dinners and dance in the ballroom while John lies on his couch, willing his ankle to heal and feeling awkward about the whole thing. He soon finds himself being beguiled by the charming Nadine (‘His eyes were on the contours of her shoulder, but his attention was on the contours of her mind’), who begins by feeling sorry for him and ends up feeling something distinctly softer and warmer. Life goes on: people gossip and scheme, and smiling, discreet servants provide tea (‘Tea is an occasion to look forward to after the dust and grit of travel; you flop into soft things and regain your belief in the harmony of life’s rhythm‘). As the household moves to and fro between the communal rooms, passing across the hallway outside John’s room, he catches fragments of conversations and secrets that won’t begin to make sense until later. He’s conscious of a taut underlying feeling about the whole house, something also picked up by other guests:
Listen! Dead quiet, isn’t it? Not a sound! But if we could really hear, Lionel? Storms brewing in the silence? There’s silence in the passage outside this door here – silence in the hall below – silence on the lawn, silence in the studio – silence in a room where an invalid lies. A brooding silence, my boy – that’s not going to last!
And last it doesn’t. After most of the guests have been out for the day on a hunt, the body of a man is discovered in a quarry not far from the house. The artist Leicester Pratt wonders whether this apparent stranger is also the person who has disfigured his painting of Anne Aveling, which he discovers slashed over with crimson paint. And then, when a riderless horse comes galloping home from the hunt, the whole house shudders at the thought that perhaps another death has occurred. But how? And why? With the restless Bultin on one hand, and the shrewd Inspector Kendall on the other, the secrets of Bragley Court are bound to be revealed. So who has something to lose?
This is a very enjoyable book – as you can see, I found myself grinning over lots of quotes and I liked Farjeon’s style very much. There’s something rather charming about reading a murder mystery set in this period, where the rituals of tea and dressing for dinner go on in the face of people turning up dead all over the place. Can’t possibly let the side down, old chap! And so on. The evocation of the characters is good too: I have very strong ideas of what everyone looks like. If it isn’t a great book, that’s due to a few elements of the plot. For a start (is this a spoiler?), John Foss doesn’t really need to be here at all. He is merely a shell for the reader to inhabit as we hear people passing to and fro out in the hall, but we don’t even stick with John all the time. As we spend more time at Bragley, we start skipping off and spending time with different characters so we certainly aren’t chained to him. I wonder whether anything would be different if Farjeon just had a couple of other characters overhearing the crucial comments. Moreover, I find it implausible that John and Nadine would so swiftly progress to this stage of mutual fascination in just a couple of days, during which they just have a handful of conversations. I’m sure Nadine is irresistible and John is perfectly pleasant, but it all happens too quickly; and is anyone else bothered that we learn so much about all the other characters but virtually nothing about John himself? It all adds to the feeling that he is just a kind of insert for the reader to ‘inhabit’.
However, there are moments when you just want a bit of escapism and a 1936 novel about a house party in a big mansion is just what you need. For those times, this is a very sound choice, probably best enjoyed with a cup (not mug!) of tea and perhaps some seed cake. I shall definitely have to look out for more mysteries by Farjeon; I look forward to reading more of his tongue-in-cheek descriptions of characters and his throwaway wit. Incidentally, his Mystery in White was the subject of an article in the Independent in December 2014, when it outsold Gone Girl and The Goldfinch to become an unexpected Christmas hit. Maybe that’ll be my next port of call, even if somewhat unseasonable.