Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon

Thirteen GuestsLord Aveling is hosting a hunting party at his estate, Bringley Court – one of those things that I will never have any experience of, where complete strangers are invited due to recommendations from friends. There will be the perfect mixture of guests, from politicians and journalists to actresses and artists. And also the perfect number – twelve.

But when John Foss, just passing through the town, badly twists his ankle, one of the guests brings him to the house to recuperate. But this has brought the number of guests to the dreaded thirteen – a bad omen, but surely no one believes in such nonsense.

Two deaths later…

As you may well know, the British Library have been reissuing a variety of “forgotten” Golden Age novels – the complete list is here – and a long time ago, they asked me to review one of their first, Mr Bazalgette’s Agent. It wasn’t really Golden Age, being a Victorian novel and to be honest, it’s weird. Really weird. And they didn’t ask me to review anything again… …until now. Finally having a blogging business card paid off, as I pressed it into the right hand at the Bodies From The Library conference and they got in touch asking me to take a look at the two recent releases from J Jefferson Farjeon.

Farjeon, you may know, wrote a bucket load of mystery novels from 1924 to 1955 – I count 64 listed on Wikipedia with some cracking titles – Old Man Mystery, Little God Ben and Ben On The Job (titter). But more importantly, Mystery In White was a best seller last Christmas. The British Library has done a stunning job on this series, taking old tourism posters as the source for their covers and succeeding in attracting the impulse purchase crowd in the run up to Christmas. Of course the book itself has garnered some good reviews. I’ve got a copy of it, but haven’t got round to reading it yet. I might well hurry up after this one, as it’s a bit of a cracker.

Farjeon’s writing style grabs you from the start. Descriptive and colourful without being overly verbose (like, for example, Ronald Knox) and the story grips you from the start. True, some of the thirteen guests don’t have much (if anything) to do with the story, but those that do are distinctive and Farjeon adopts the fly on the wall approach as we see a number of scenes focussing on various potential leads – and potential sleuths. Will John Foss be our hero? Or Bultin the journalist? Or even, once he shows up, Inspector Kendall?

It’s a book that certainly keeps you both reading and guessing, although I think it’s possible to solve the mysteries herein. It does rely a little on timing, but whereas in some books – The Clock Strikes Twelve and the god-awful Surfeit of Lampreys, for example – the precision needed is ridiculous and even when it’s described, it’s hard to follow, here it’s not really necessary in the first place and it all fits together nicely. It’s as if our hero is over-detailing matters, rather than the reader needing to have a three-dimensional flowchart to sort things out.

In fact, that issue and the general sort of solution – not my favourite resolution at all – should have meant this book annoyed the hell out of me, but no. In fact, after taking Mrs Puzzle Doctor to work this morning and doing a bit of shopping, I sat in the car-park and finished the last few chapters. If that doesn’t mean that I found it compelling reading, I don’t know what does.

So, my latest Golden Age binge – starting with The Dead Man’s Knock and The Crystal Beads Murder and continuing here – seems to be going well. Stick around for more Farjeon (well, the British Library ones), more Annie Haynes, some Harriet Rutland and just possibly a bit of John Dickson Carr as well. Oh, and a non-Golden Age review that I promised someone. See if you can spot it!

But in the meantime, this is, rather obviously, Highly Recommended. So, who else has read it?

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14 comments

  1. Yeah I read it last month: https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/j-jefferson-farjeons-thirteen-guests-1936/
    Though personally I preferred Mystery in White and then The Z Murders (https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/a-pacey-thriller-with-a-nincompoop-for-a-hero-in-j-jefferson-farjeons-the-z-murders-1932/). My problem with Thirteen Guests is that the first half of the novel focuses on certain characters in depth, but these foci are not picked up in the second half of the novel, where we see a very concealed investigation done by the police investigator. The ending is rather weak trying to pick up the glimmer of romance found in the beginning of the novel but is forgotten until the last chapter pretty much. Think Farjeon does better with thriller type novels as they fit his fast pace. What did you make of the last line of the story? I thought it rather weird.

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    • I agree there is an issue with focus. One character (who I won’t name for fear of spoilers) seems important but is in fact inconsequential. But I thought the romance was nice, especially compared to the Carr-ian “I hate you but let’s get married by the end of the book”. But yes, the last line puzzled me rather too…

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      • I haven’t read enough Carr to comment on his attitude to romance, though I did enjoy The Emperor’s Snuff Box, which has rather tangled romance in it. Which of his works do you think romance crops up in a lot? Also I feel like the last line in Thirteen Guests would be the sort of line that tops the bill of list for: Things you don’t say in a romantic context.

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      • Maybe he figured this was the last time he could see someone important to her? As for Carr, the typical romance is played out (in a fun way) in The Case Of The Constant Suicides, which is a clever mystery as well. Well worth a look – it’s one of my absolute favourites, much more so than The Hollow Man

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  2. I haven’t read this one, and I probably won’t either since I thought “Mystery in White” was pretty poor. It’s certainly not fairplay, not really a mystery in any way and the only interesting bit is the characters being snowed in, but even that part is fairly ridiculous with characters swanning in and out of the story at the drop of a hat.

    In fact, that book was bad enough that I’m very wary of everything else published in the British Library series – they all look very good indeed, but my fear is that these books were forgotten for a very good reason: they’re forgettable.

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    • And on the other hand, I received an comment looking forward to my next British Library review.

      I’ve not read Mystery In White but I will soon. In the meantime, I’d say this is a fairplay mystery, although you probably need a pen and paper to solve it properly. However the problem of characters appearing and disappearing for long sections of the narrative, if it annoyed you in Mystery In White, won’t endear this one to you.

      Out of curiosity, which of the British Library Classics have you read?

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      • I’ve only read “Mystery in White”, because of that bad experience (but I’ve read some other books by Crofts so I’m at least familiar with him). And as you yourself point out in your review of “The Z Murders”, it’s British Library Crime Classics, not Mystery Classics, so it’s quite probable that I won’t like them much.

        The ones I’m most interested in are Mavis Dorel Hay’s books, which look good (but so did “Mystery in White”!), and the anthologies that Martin Edwards have edited – I’m still debating if I should try one. My fear is that there is too much modern and/or non-fair play stuff in them.

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