Long lost crime novels from the “Golden Era” of the crime novel (1920s, 1930s, 1940s) are now being lovingly reprinted and published by the British Library Crime Classics imprint!
I’m very excited to report that two of these novels, both by a superb author, J. Jefferson Farjeon, are available in ebook format at Amazon. You gotta check them out if you like your crime on the creepy, well-written, literary side. I do.
I blogged recently on the first one of these to be published, Mystery in White. I refer you to that post for some juicy information; accolades on the book by the masters in the field, such as Dorothy Sayers; and a beautifully done “etching-type” front cover, that I kinda fancy (see image)—it depicts a 1937 steam train stranded on the tracks at night in a pile of newfallen snow.
Rumor has it Mystery in White sold so many copies in its new edition, it out sold all its modern rivals in the biz—i.e., dark mysterious thriller novels such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and that runaway bestseller: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with the prose in either of these books. But Flynn’s other novel Sharp Objects is good).
Below, I’ve shared with you, fervent Mystery Lover, the Introduction to The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon written by crime novelist extraordinaire, Martin Edwards (I have not read Edwards).
I do hope you enjoy it and that it will inspire you to hurry and buy a copy of both ‘The Z Murders’ AND Farjeon’s masterpiece ‘Mystery in White.’
Don’t you wanna know who did it?
A Most “Sinister Culprit”…
‘The serial killer mystery featuring a sequence of macabre and seemingly motiveless murders is often assumed to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Not so. Serial killer stories date back to the nineteenth century, and John Oxenham’s “A Mystery of the Underground” (included in the British Library anthology Capital Crimes) sparked such alarm that it led to a temporary decline in the number of passengers travelling on the Tube. Decades later, during the Golden Age of Murder between the two world wars, serial killer mystery novels enjoyed a vogue. Today the most famous example is Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, but four years before Christie’s book appeared, J. Jefferson Farjeon produced a fast-paced and entertaining serial killer thriller with a title and concept taken from the other end of the alphabet—The Z Murders.
A passage shortly before the climactic scenes captures the appeal of the puzzle set in this kind of story: “There was not even any theory to work upon. The murders…occurred, apparently, at any time and at any place. They appeared to be motiveless and purposeless, and to form no settled scheme. Within thirty hours three tragedies had occurred, known already as ‘The Z Murders’ in thousands of homes, and countless anxious lips were voicing the questions, ‘How many more?’ ‘Where will the next occur?’ and ‘Who will the next victim be?’”
The story opens with Richard Temperley’s arrival back at Euston after a trip to the Lake District. It is early in the morning, and before moving on to his next destination, he takes refuge in a nearby hotel. So does an elderly and rather disagreeable fellow passenger, who had snored his way through the train journey. But within minutes the other man has snored for the last time—he has been shot dead while sleeping in an armchair. Temperley has a brief encounter with a beautiful young woman, but she promptly flees the scene. When the police arrive, Detective-Inspector James questions Temperley, and then shows him a token that has been discovered at the crime scene: “a small piece of enamelled metal. Its colour was crimson, and it was in the shape of the letter Z.”
Fascinated by the woman, Temperley discovers that her name is Sylvia Wynne and that she lives in Chelsea. Instinct convinces him that, whatever she may have to hide, she is not a murderer. He goes in search of her, with the police (whose treatment of him throughout seems remarkably good-natured, in the circumstances) in hot pursuit. On after arriving at her studio, however, he discovers another crimson Z, lying on the carpet.
The villain, whoever he or she may be, is apparently some kind of “signature killer” (although that term had yet to be invented) but Sylvia’s terrified refusal to tell Temperley what she knows, and her habit of disappearing from sight before he can save her from a mysterious fate, lead to further complications. We follow the pair on a bizarre cross-country chase, first by train and later by taxi, before Farjeon finally reveals the truth, and one of Golden Age fiction’s most sinister culprits.
By compressing the action (of which there is plenty) into a day and a half, Farjeon makes sure that he never loses his grip on the reader’s attention. The plotting is melodramatic, and the portrayal of the principal villain lurid, while there are regular cliff-hangers similar to those in the Paul Temple stories of Francis Durbridge, which enjoyed popularity from the mid-1930s onwards. But whereas Durbridge’s approach to writing was strictly functional, Farjeon cared about his prose, and liked to spice his mysteries with dashes of humour and romance. Time and again, imaginative literary flourishes lift the writing out of the mundanity commonplace in thrillers of this period.
Joseph Jefferson Farjeon (1883–1955) published his first novel in 1924, and later in the 1920s created the character Detective X. Crook, who appeared in a long run of short stories. Crook is a reformed criminal who adopts a pseudonym to pursue a new career as a private detective. Farjeon soon became a prolific novelist, whose books are so numerous, and so varied in subject matter, that some of the genre’s scholars have struggled to pin him down, while others have simply ignored him. Writing less than twenty years after Farjeon’s death, Colin Watson, in his study of inter-war fiction Snobbery with Violence, referred to him merely as a critic and author of historical romances. Like his better-remembered sister Eleanor, Farjeon also wrote books for children. But his work had long been out of print prior to the reappearance in the British Library’s Crime Classics series of Mystery in White, which promptly became an unexpected runaway best-seller.
Despite Farjeon’s versatility, recurring patterns can be detected in some of his books. As one of his fervent admirers, Dorothy L. Sayers, said in her review of The Windmill Mystery: “When a young man sets out to hike through one of Mr. Jefferson Farjeon’s stories he is certain of meeting (a) a girl and (b) a corpse.” She added that, in his best books, “every word is entertaining” – high praise from a habitually stringent critic.
Sayers was equally complimentary about Sinister Inn: “The plot is a little fantastic, but not too much so; the writing is, as usual, lively and atmospheric; romance is lightly and dexterously mingled with the thrills; and the nice people are as genuinely nice as the nasty ones are engagingly nasty.” Much the same might be said of The Z Murders, a classic serial killer mystery that until now has been unaccountably overlooked.’
– Martin Edwards
(from the Introduction to The Z Murders by John. Jefferson Jarjeon, British Library of Classic Crimes) ♢