Christmas is approaching rapidly, as we are reminded repeatedly by the constantly-repeated secular "holiday" music playing everywhere. Do we dream of a "White Christmas," think of the romantic images of "Let It Snow," long to be out building snowmen and listening for sleigh bells? Well, be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. Holiday snowfalls can be beautiful, to be sure, but it is not exactly beautiful to find yourself stuck in a third-class carriage on an English train (circa 1937) in the midst of a blinding snowstorm on the day before Christmas, with the train stuck along a desolate stretch of track, blocked from going either forward or back by the buildup of snow. Five passengers decide to leave the train and set out on foot for a station just a few miles down the track. What happens to them next may be found in J. Jefferson Farjeon's 1937 book, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story. It is something a great deal less than that ideal romantic image. Mystery in White is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and I invite you to listen to the entire review by clicking here.
A group of five travelers, desperate to get off their immobile train and reach their destinations, walk off the train together. The refugees from the train include a brother and sister, another young man who is a clerk, a third man described repeatedly as a bore, a showgirl, and an elderly psychical researcher who will, eventually, be our detective. Shortly after they leave the train together, the storm intensifies, becoming a raging blizzard, with whiteout conditions - they can barely see each other though they walk together. So it is more or less a miracle when, stumbling through heavy, drifting snow, they come upon a house. Nobody answers their knock, but, when they try the door, it proves to be unlocked and swings open. Desperate for shelter, they enter - and find fires blazing in the fireplace, water ready for boiling, tea essentials on hand. What they do not find is any sign of anyone in the house - it is empty, except for them.
And, slowly, as they settle in, waiting for the owner to return, things gradually get worse and worse - not only the blizzard, but the entire setup - there is clearly something wrong with the place, and where is its owner? Things are not helped by the arrival, out of the snow, of another singularly unpleasant man who has also left their train...bringing reports of a murder. And that will prove to be only the first of several deaths.
While it is a classic Golden Age story, Mystery in White really isn’t much of a "fair-play" puzzle – it’s really more of a light thriller. Gradually, the reader learns the secret of the house and of the people who live there, but it’s not revealed through hidden clues. Most of the secret is revealed through papers found in the house. But through it all, the blizzard hides some pretty dark secrets. The writing is kept light, and the humor helps to keep the reader both entertained and informed. There’s a touch of romance as well, and the plot flirts with the supernatural without letting it overpower the book. Mystery writer Martin Edwards has contributed a fine introduction to this new edition from British Library Crime Classics providing more insight into the author, J. Jefferson Farjeon - a name virtually unknown today, despite having written more than 80 novels between 1924 and 1955, some of them quite popular in their day. At this time of year, it would make an ideal stocking stuffer for the mystery lover, the incurable holiday romantic, or - ideally - both.