Thursday, 22 December 2016

Mystery in white by J Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White was written by J Jefferson Farjeon who is little-known today but was an important writer during the Golden Age of murder between the two world wars.  The book was first published in 1937 and subtitled A Christmas Crime Story. Farjeon published more than 20 novels including No 17 which was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock who called it Number Seventeen.

The story starts on Christmas Eve when the 11.37 train leaves Euston Station in London during a snowstorm.  The train eventually comes to a halt and a group of passengers decide to leave the train to walk to a nearby village.  Eventually they come to a house with lights shining from the windows.  The door is unlocked so they go inside to find fires burning and a table set for tea.  This is a disparate group consisting of a chorus girl, a clerk, an elderly bore, Mr Maltby from the Royal Psychical society and a brother and sister. The characters are well drawn and develop during the book.  Tensions arise as the book progresses and the characters realise that something awful has happened near the house. As the book is set in the 1930s the lack of modern technology adds to the feeling of being completely cut off from the outside world. The characters cannot get any help and so must fend for themselves.

I enjoyed this book - it was well written and I was fascinated how Mr Maltby managed to put all the various clues together to solve the mystery.   If you enjoy books by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers you will enjoy this book.

This is one of the books I am reading for A Literary Christmas Challenge.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott wrote Kenilworth in 1821 but the novel is set in Elizabethan England. According to Alexander's introduction to my 1999 copy, "Kenilworth is the most satisfyingly constructed of the Waverley Novels" because of the successful organisation of the 3 volumes of the novel by Scott.

It tells the story of Amy Robsart who was secretly married to the Earl of Leicester who kept her a virtual prisoner because he did not want Queen Elizabeth to find out about his marriage.  The Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Sussex were competing for the queen's favour. The author describes this novel as A Romance and the theme of love is certainly important but other themes also feature including ambition, greed, loyalty and religion.

Scott certainly captures the essence of the age and so at times this novel reads like a Shakespearean play. Much of the novel takes place at Kenilworth Castle which is the setting for various entertainments laid on for the queen and her court. At times it seems as if all the characters are actors in a pageant. There are a number of interesting characters in the book including courtiers, nobles, servants, Wayland the Smith and Alasco the alchemist.  The famous incident involving Raleigh and his cloak is included in the novel.  I particularly liked the character of Wayland the Smith who provided an important link throughout the book.

Although I found the novel quite hard to get into, it is worth persevering as the story is well told and the author's descriptions of life in Elizabethan England are excellent.   I particularly liked the descriptions of court life as the courtiers all vie for the queen's favour.  As Alexander says in the introduction,  "most (readers) will probably be content to take away from this novel an unforgettable picture of a brilliant society with a 'melancholy tale' at it rotten heart."

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

The 39 Steps was written by the Scottish author John Buchan (1875 - 1940) and is set in May and June of 1914 just before the outbreak of the First World War.  It was first published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1915 and was so successful it was later published as a book.

The story is a classic spy story which involves a murder and an exciting chase through the hills of Southern Scotland as the hero tries to escape from both the police and the murderers.  The hero of the book is Richard Hannay who has arrived back in Britain after working in Africa.  He is finding London very boring when he meets a stranger who says he is fearful of his life.  This man explains he is a spy and that he is following a group of German spies called the Black Stone.  Hannay allows this man to stay in his flat but a few days later returns home to find him dead. Hannay finds the man's notebook which is written in code. Realising that he might be in danger, and be accused of murder, Hannay leaves London thinking it might be safer to go into hiding in Scotland. Whilst staying in an inn, Hannay manages to decipher the code in the notebook which mentions the Black Stone and the 39 steps.

The description of the chase through the hills is exciting and the author obviously knows this area well as the couple of quotes from the book demonstrate.

"The station, when I reached it, proved to be ideal for my purpose.  The moor surged up around it and left room only for the single line, the slender siding, a waiting-room, an office, the station-master's cottage, and a tiny yard of gooseberries and sweet-william.  There seemed no road to it from anywhere, and to increase the desolation the waves of a tarn lapped on their grey granite beach half a mile away."

"The land was so deep in peace that I could scarcely believe that somewhere behind me were those who sought my life: ay, and that in a month's time, unless I had the almightiest of luck, these round country faces would be pinched and staring and men would be lying dead in English fields".
Initially Hannay is fortunate in the people he meets in the hills who all help him - however his luck runs out when he is caught by the spies and locked up in a storeroom.  Luckily he finds some dynamite and uses this to blast his way out.  He reaches London and goes to the Foreign Office where he meets Sir Walter Bullivant, a relative of one of the people who had helped him in Scotland. Hannay is let into some military secrets and ends up taking charge of a police operation and successfully works out that the 39 steps refer to the steps at a coastal site.  The spies are caught before they can reach their yacht moored at the bottom of the 39 steps.  

This is a story very much of its time - some of the attitudes portrayed would not be tolerated today, being regarded as racist and chauvinistic now.   There are no women characters of any note in the book which differed from the film version I had seen where the hero and a woman are pursued across the hills!  Buchan admitted he didn't do female characters!  The book was quite fast moving especially in the beginning but there were a lot of rather unbelievable co-incidences - especially when the hero takes charge of the police operation!   I felt the last few chapters disappointing - I had no idea what the 39 steps were but did expect something more exciting than a flight of steps down to a beach.

Although I was glad I had read this book, as it is regarded as a classic, I doubt if I will read any more books by this author.



Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge

I've found a reading challenge for crime fiction - you can find details of this challenge on the Books, Movies, Reviews! Oh My! blog.  I have signed up to read between 5-15 books next year which should be manageable.  I have no difficulty reading the books but find writing the reviews takes time.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie (Jan 2017)
Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown (Jan 2017)
Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon (Jan 2017)
Blind Goddess by Anne Holt (Jan 2017)
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward (Feb 2017)
The Man who went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and  Per Wahlöö (Feb 2017)
The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason (Nov 2017)