My first book in the 52 Books Challenge for 2015 is a little bit of a cheat considering I started it last year, but it was a Christmas present from my sister which I couldn’t not finish just because it reached a new year!
I had noticed this book in Waterstones a lot over the Christmas period. It is a British Library classic which has been reissued in print for the first time since 1937, and harks back to the 1930s Golden Era of crime writing. Remember, at this time writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers were enjoying great success, and in fact Sayers is quoted on the back of the book, praising Jefferson Farjeon for being “unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures”. According to an article I read on The Independent website, this novel has been a breakout success of the Christmas period, with people seeking escapism back to what is seen as a gentler time.
The premise of the story is that, on Christmas Eve in an unspecified year of the 1930s, six unlikely travelling companions find themselves trapped on a train in the middle of a snowstorm of epic proportions. Through one means or another they find themselves off the train and wandering through the snowy countryside, where they stumble upon an unlocked house, where the fires are on and tea is set, but no one is home. Seeking shelter, they settle in for the night, only to find that the big old house holds terrible secrets, and just as they think they are safe, a murderer is discovered in their midst.
This is an enjoyable book, and it’s nice to imagine England under proper snowfall at Christmas time (we all dream of a White Christmas, after all!). The cover of the book is brilliant for evoking such imagery, with the train pretty much wedged in by snowdrifts. I certainly don’t remember anything like that amount of snow in my lifetime, but February 1933 saw The Great Blizzard, one of the worst to hit the British Isles, where some areas saw 48 hours of continuous snowfall. I expect Jefferson Farjeon may have based the context of his story partly on this phenomenon. There’s a (rather long) post about it on a weather discussion forum, which sounds like the dullest thing on earth but is actually quite interesting, with cuttings from contemporary newspapers and photos at the time (if that still sounds boring, forgive me, my inner history geek is clearly racing to the surface!)
The snow adds to the repressive atmosphere of the novel, and certainly makes the story. Without the snow, none of the events which take place could have occurred, and a great deal of mysteries would be left unsolved. It also poses an interesting contemplation. I take the train to and from work every day, and never have any reason to speak to my fellow passengers, let alone spend an evening holed up in an abandoned house with them! It’s therefore fascinating to think about what could happen when a group of very different people are brought together by circumstance and contained together for a certain period of time. It will certainly make you look around you next time you’re on the train, wondering who of those around you would really like to be stuck with for 24 hours…
With regards to the characters, I have a bone to pick with the (long-deceased) author, that being that the female characters are so completely secondary in terms of action. The leading protagonists are David Carrington and the mysterious Mr Maltby, a man with a keen mind and an interest in the occult. David’s sister Lydia and a woman called Jessie Noyes are both stranded in the house with them, but Jessie is soon invalided out of the story to a great degree with a sprained ankle and a nervous disposition. Lydia, although made of stronger stuff, is relegated by her own brother to the role of nursemaid and carer for Jessie and Mr Thomson, a strange young man who collapses with fever soon after their arrival at the house. Finally Mr Hopkins makes up the rest of the initial party, a puffed up, preening man who is clearly all talk and no action. There are other characters who flit in and out of the narrative, but the impression given in the way these characters are written is that David and Mr Maltby are the only useful members of the entire party, which frustrated me no end. In an ensemble cast such as this, I like to see all members of the cast with some kind of role to play. But I probably need to begrudgingly accept Jefferson Farjeon’s portrayal of Lydia and Jessie on the grounds of female roles and attitudes towards women during the 1930s. Prior to the Second World War women would not have enjoyed such independence as they did during and after the war, and this is probably just a reflection of old-fashioned attitudes which had yet to change.
The plot focuses a great deal on dialogue and unravelling the mysteries surrounding the house, which turn out to be key to solving the whole mystery of the night. There is therefore a lack of description and imagery, but there is enough to paint a picture of the scene in front of you. In short, practicality over beauty is the order of the day where descriptive writing is concerned!
For the novelty factor I would definitely recommend this book. It’s one to read on a cosy evening in curled up by the fire, or tucked up under the covers in bed. It’s only 256 pages long, so it won’t consume all your time in the reading. The plot is good and you won’t be able to guess the denouement before the big reveal, so there will still be a surprise for you when it is all explained by Mr Maltby. Definitely a good one to add to your collection if you are a fan of crime fiction or historical fiction.
Funnily enough, my dad also has a copy of this book. I saw it and commented when I visited on Christmas Eve, and then the very next day unwrapped my own copy! My sister knows me well, and clearly my dad’s tastes and my own are more similar than I imagined!