Sunday, June 11, 2017

Christmas in June! Mystery in White: Review

Mystery in White (1937) by J. Jefferson Farjeon finds a train full of people stuck in an unexpectedly heavy winter storm as they are on their way to various Christmas destinations.. It's a situation very familiar to fans of the Golden Age mystery story. But Farjeon gives the scenario a deft twist from that of Christie's Orient Express. Instead of keeping everyone snugly in place on the trapped train, he sends them out into the wintry whiteness. After they've been stuck for what seems an eternity, the passengers—David Carrington and his sister, Lydia; clerk Robert Thomson; chorus girl Jessie Noyes; Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society; and an old bore named Hopkins —all decide to leave their carriage in search of another (hopefully snow-free) train at the nearby the Hemmersby station.

But the weather is worse than expected and they become hopelessly lost in the swirling white landscape. When Jessie twists her ankle on a particularly tricky bit of ground, the adventurers are lucky enough to find a house where they can ask for refuge. Except no one's at home. The door is unlocked and, desperate for shelter, they go on in and find an unusual sight--there are fires blazing in the fireplaces, the table is set for tea, and the kettle is on the boil. No one in their right mind would get tea all ready only to leave the house in the middle of a snow storm. So where is their host? That's not the only question facing the stranded travelers. Why is there a knife in the middle of the floor? Who killed the man on the train? {What man, you say? Hold on...} And who is "Smith," the little Cockney who suddenly appeared at the door as well? He says that he wasn't on the train--so where did he come from?

Back to the man on the train. Hopkins was the last to leave the compartment. He had fully expected to remain on the train, unlike the "lunatics" (as he referred to his fellow passengers). That was before he noticed one of the train's guards staring into the next compartment....at a dead man. While the guard and other passengers all stood around gaping at the body, Hopkins decided to try and get to Hemmersby and find a policeman. Or so he said. Then Maltby reveals that he tripped over another dead body as he was making his way to Valley House (as their shelter is known). Maltby and David Carrington take the lead in investigating the mysterious happenings--both those that occurred on the train they left behind and those that involve the house. Fortunately, they are able to unravel it all and bring about a conclusion that is satisfactory to almost everybody...except the killer, of course.

Farjeon loads his mysterious Christmas tale with all sorts of unlikely things--from psychic tremors that tell of past misdeeds in the house to unlikely connections among the cast to the police's ability to swallow the tale that Maltby ultimately spins them (to protect the innocent--you know). But--the tale is such great fun and is such a wild bobsled of a ride through Farjeon's winter wonderland that one can suspend one's disbelief in psychic happenings. And the psychic episodes are brief enough that they don't detract from the mystery. A thoroughly enjoyable romp through the 1930s countryside.

Added bonus: the spiffy introduction by Martin Edwards. So glad he and The British Library are bringing these forgotten vintage mysteries back to us. ★★★★

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This counts for the "Snow/Snowy Scene" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

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