A snowbound train should be a safe, if slightly inconvenient, place to spend Christmas, no? Not in Mystery in White: Death, it turns out, is a passenger on this run, and as passengers begin to fear, and some make a bid for escape, J. Jefferson Farjeon keeps ratcheting up the tension, holding readers in his grip until the surprising conclusion…
I came across this little holiday nugget in an older article in The Independent. The cover painting of a coal train stranded in deep snow sold me right away. I’m a sucker for well-written nostalgia. And I adore vintage crime. As you’ll see in the brief article that follows, so, apparently, do a great many other crime and mystery readers. (I’m pleased to know I have a tribe.)
A Christmas detective tale not seen in shops for more than 70 years has become a festive sleeper hit and resurrected interest in a long-forgotten crime writer.
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937) is selling in astonishing numbers, according to the Waterstones book chain. In fact, it has outsold its modern rival paperbacks: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
Amazon reported they temporarily ran out of stock last week due to a surging demand for the vintage story.
Very cheerful. Warms the heart the way we humans love a good killing during the season of twinkling lights, figgy pudding, and goodwill toward men. (No, really, though. What’s this obsession we have with spilled blood at Christmas? I think that’s another blogpost. Check back with The Sanguine Woods in December…)
Mystery in White tells the story of an eclectic group of six people stuck on a train stranded in heavy snow on Christmas Eve. Fearing they may find themselves marooned all night, the group decides to foot it all the way to the next station. On the way, they come across an unlocked house with dinner laid out, a kettle on the boil, and a fire roaring; but no one seemes to be at home.
Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house, when a murderer strikes right in their midst.
Above: the original dust jacket from the 1937 edition, and a well read or “lovingly used” jacket from another edition (date unknown). (Google Books)
First published in 1937, Mystery in White has been republished as part of the British Library Crime Classics series that is rekindling interest in authors from the pre-Second World War “golden age” of crime writing. People are buying vintage crime fiction from the “golden era” instead of modern crime thrillers of today. More than 155,000 copies in the series have been sold this year, but with Mystery in White accounting for 60,000 of those sales.
Joseph Knobbs, Waterstones’ crime fiction buyer, said he thought the sales could reflect readers yearning for genuine mysteries rather than darker, modern thrillers: “Mystery in White has been our bestselling paperback this Christmas and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year,” Knobbs said.
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J. Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience,” he said.
(In this blogger’s humble opinion, the switch to the golden era titles has more to do with the quality (or the lack thereof). There are still a crop of disverning readers out there in book land; and it doesn’t take a Sherlock to deduce that vintage crime and mystery fiction is just better written than much of the assembly-line modern crime, mystery, and thriller doorstops with which we are inundated today.)
Apparently, Mr. Farjeon isn’t into the art of crafting foorstops. And I’m glad for that.
Born in London in 1885 to a family of actors and writers, J. Jefferson Farjeon was intelligent, a man of good humor, and quite the prolific author. Over h9s lifetime, he penned 80-some-odd novels and plays.
He died in Hove, aged 72, in 1955.
The crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers has said 9f him: He was “unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures”.
Farjeon was not the only writer in his family, either. Hos sister, Eleanor, was a renowned children’s author.
The British Library Crime Classics
The Notting Hill Mystery, originally published in the 1860s, was the first in the British Library series to come out in 2012, but sales have taken off this year when authors from the 1930s and 1940s were republished.
Robert Davies, from British Library Publishing, said: “For years, publishers have been concentrating on dark, violent, psychological crime novels, but we spotted a gap in the market for readers seeking escapist detective fiction with superb plots and period atmosphere.”
He added: “We’re a very small team operating in an environment that is quite tough on independent publishers, so we’re extremely proud of our sales figures: up 400% in November on the previous year. Independent and international bookshops have all got behind us, but we’ve especially benefited from support from Waterstones.”‘
The Z Murders (below) is another novel by J. Jefferson Farjeon recently published by the British crime classics library.
Additional titles from a variety of vintage crime writers are planned for publication.🔫