With each of the victims, the killer left a sort of calling card - a metal disk painted crimson and shaped like the letter "Z." Who was responsible for the murders, why was the killer doing it, and where would the killer strike next?
The answers may be found in The Z Murders, a 1932 book about what we now call a "serial killer" - written, of course, before that term had become all too familiar both in real life and in mystery fiction. The book, by J. Jefferson Farjeon, is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
The Z Murders is a crime novel, but not really much of a detective story - there's not much detecting to be done and very few clues to be followed or suspects to be, well, suspected. Instead, what we have here is a fast-paced and rather tight thriller, along the same lines as any number of books by Edgar Wallace, for example. As long as you don't spend a lot of time searching for realism, you'll be thoroughly entertained.
The story begins with a young man, Richard Temperley, who has had a miserable train journey to London, arriving in the small hours before dawn. It was miserable because the other occupant of his first-class carriage snored all night long. So when Temperley reaches London and goes to a nearby hotel to try to sleep in a comfortable armchair before a fire, he is not happy to discover the other armchair in the room occupied by that snoring traveler. He is even less happy when the snoring stops and he discovers the man is dead - shot, apparently by someone firing through an open window - though no shot was heard.
And off we go, as Temperley sets out in pursuit of a young woman who passed him in the hallway and may have been fleeing from the room where the traveler died. Police arrive and discover an odd token of sorts near the body: a metal disk, painted crimson, in the shape of the letter "Z."
From this point, the story becomes complicated in true thriller fashion. The police, for some reason, not only don't seem to mind Temperley interfering with the investigation - at one point, he finds and hides that young woman's purse from investigators, for example - they actually seem to welcome it, at one point agreeing to back off and let Temperley search for the missing woman without police interference. This requires a pretty enormous suspension of disbelief; on the other hand, it's a thriller, so why not? In any case, Temperley and the young woman take off on a chase across large portions of the English countryside, traveling first by train and then by taxi. And, as we come to realize, they are pursued by a true nightmare of a killer who seems determined to add them to his list of victims, as he leaves behind a trail of bodies - and those peculiar metal "Z"s.
There is plenty of wit in Farjeon's writing, and he manages to make us see the horrors of the killings without displaying excessive violence. There's plenty of action, too, although it's generally kept fairly light, despite several murders and a crazed killer on the loose. It's certainly a pleasant afternoon's reading.
The Z Murders is another newly-rediscovered Golden Age story, brought back to life and republished by the British Library Crime Classics series. In the U.S., the books are published by Poisoned Pen Press. This edition features an introduction by mystery author (and British Detection Club president) Martin Edwards, providing considerable background on Farjeon and his work. The book is most enjoyable - as long as you leave your disbelief outside!