From The Independent December 20, 2014:
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hitBooksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
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 is selling in “astonishing numbers”, according to the Waterstones book chain. It has outsold rival paperbacks Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on the high street, while Amazon temporarily ran out of stock last week due to surging demand.
I kicked off our discussion of Capital Crimes with this article. I then expounded a bit further on the opening chapters of Farjeon’s novel. The situation is this: a train has gotten stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach the next railway station on foot.
With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.
To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?
It’s a great set-up. The story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.
Having come out in 2012, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (Charles Warren Adams) was the first reissue in The British Library Crime Classics series. Two years later, however, Mystery in White was the first to make a major impression on the reading public. At this point, there have been some thirty-six titles released or planned for release by the publishing division of the British Library.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstone Books, observes:
‘Mystery in White has been our bestselling paperback this Christmas  and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
“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.’
Robert Davies, from British Library Publishing, adds:
‘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.’
(At this juncture, Louise interjected the view that the stories selected for this discussion were actually quite dark – anything but escapist! She had a point.)
The runaway success of the British Library Crime Classics was instrumental in bringing into being a conference on Golden Age Mysteries called Bodies from the Library. The first of these was held last year; the second, last month. The conference’s site features a list of suggested reading in Golden Age classics that’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. There’s simply not enough time!
Like the dutiful librarian I was for many gratifying years, I set out some display items for the group:
Capital Crimes is a short story collection that was published here last year. (The Crime Classics entries are now being published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press.) The seventeen stories contained therein were selected by Martin Edwards, who has performed the same function for several other anthologies in this series.
(You’ll note that one of the display items above is Martin Edwards’s award-winning book The Golden Age of Murder.) I’d chosen four stories from Capital Crimes for us to consider. The first was “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Although Martin Edwards does give the year in which this story first appeared – 1893 – that information was not readily available for most of the other stories in this anthology. We all agreed that this was omission we’d like to see remedied, if possible.)
This is not a Sherlock Holmes story; rather, it is a tale of adultery and revenge, with no detective in the cast of characters. I have to say that upon my first reading, I was so shocked by the events therein described that I slammed the book shut, looked up, and uttered an oath, I don’t remember what, exactly.
Upon subsequent readings, I was able to be somewhat more analytical. Were the events of the story credible? Does Conan Doyle play fair with the reader? The group tossed these questions around for a while; ultimately we concluded that the answer to both questions was yes. Conan Doyle’s masterful touch as a storyteller was everywhere apparent.
Frank directed our attention in this and the other stories to the way in which information about the characters is imparted. In a novel, the author has the time to develop in an almost leisurely manner the personalities of those characters. By contrast, in a short story the time and space are limited. There’s no room for extended descriptions; words must be chosen for their economy of meaning. We agreed that Conan Doyle achieved this aim in “Lady Sannox.”
Here’s what we’re told about Douglas Stone, an eminent surgeon who also happens to be the lover of Lady Sannox:
He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patient. His energy, his audacity, his full-blooded self-confidence— does not the memory of them still linger to the south of Marylebone Road and the north of Oxford Street?
And his vices were as magnificent as his virtues, and infinitely more picturesque. Large as was his income, and it was the third largest of all professional men in London, it was far beneath the luxury of his living. Deep in his complex nature lay a rich vein of sensualism, at the sport of which he placed all the prizes of his life. The eye, the ear, the touch, the palate, all were his masters. The bouquet of old vintages, the scent of rare exotics, the curves and tints of the daintiest potteries of Europe, it was to these that the quick-running stream of gold was transformed.
Douglas Stone himself would have readily agreed with all this praise: he had an ego the size of West Texas!
The complete story can be accessed at this site.
There exists a film version of “The Case of Lady Sannox.” For today’s viewer, I’m afraid it comes across as rather campy. The acting is over-the-top histrionic; in addition, the actress playing Lady Sannox is woefully miscast. But the strangest thing about this version of the story is the way in which the ending is altered. I suggest reading the story, then watching the film, and drawing your own conclusions concerning what was changed and why.
This story sparked an especially lively discussion. Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me. But I’m grateful to Marge, Louise, Frank, and Ann for engaging with such enthusiasm.
It is difficult to talk about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle without also talking about his most famous creation. That fact was illustrated by this oft-reproduced 1926 cartoon from Punch Magazine: Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist bringing this along for show and tell: This book is a companion to a special exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. We were for fortunate enough to see this exhibit and tour this remarkable facility when we were on our 2007 Smithsonian Mystery excursion. On that occasion, Dr. Alan Mackaill was our guide and speaker:
It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.
Our next story was “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (1931) by Thomas Burke. This is a fairly famous piece and is included in quite a few mystery anthologies. It’s the story of a serial killer who roams the streets of London, striking innocent people at random and then seeming to disappear into thin air. The first victim is a gentleman by the name of Mr Whybrow. He’s headed home after a hard day’s work and looking forward to having tea with his wife. You get the sense of a perfectly ordinary man married to a likewise ordinary woman; they’re fond of each other and neither would hurt a fly. But their domestic tranquility, taken for granted up until now, is doomed to be shattered by “A man with a dead heart eating into itself and bringing forth the foul organisms that arise from death and corruption.” He murders them both, husband and wife. Then quick as you like, he’s gone. Or is he?
Burke’s description of this fiend in human form comes with a large dose of irony and black humor:
He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and passed as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and as he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea. I don’t say that flippantly, but as a statement of fact. Strange as it may seem to the humane, murderers must and do sit down to meals after a murder. There is no reason why they shouldn’t, and many reasons why they should. For one thing, they need to keep their physical and mental vitality at full beat for the business of covering their crime. For another, the strain of their effort makes them hungry, and satisfaction at the accomplishment of a desired thing brings a feeling of relaxation toward human pleasures.
The total number of murders stands at eight. Following the last, “…he was to pass into history as the unknown London horror, and return to the decent life that he had always led, remembering little of what he had done and worried not at all by the memory.” This could be a description of Jack the Ripper, or of the perpetrator of the so-called Texas Servant Girl Murders. Burke’s tone here, located somewhere between satire and black humor, is reminiscent of that of Thomas de Quincey in “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.”
It is a sheerly terrifying story. It imparts to the reader a quality of horror and shock usually associated with tales of the supernatural or of pure sensation, while staying in the bounds of the strict detective story.
I more or less concur with this view, which is why I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction to this story on the part of my fellow Suspects. Marge felt that the narrative would have worked better as a full length novel, in which the character of the victims could be more fully explored and the reader’s sympathy engaged accordingly.
Frank mentioned the effectiveness of a passage told in the second person, a rarely used device in fiction. It harkens back to poor Mr. Whybrow, as his fate draws near:
You are nearly home now. You have turned into your street— Caspar Street— and you are in the center of the chessboard. You can see the front window of your little four-roomed house. The street is dark, and its three lamps give only a smut of light that is more confusing than darkness. It is dark— empty, too. Nobody about; no lights in the front parlors of the houses, for the families are at tea in their kitchens; and only a random glow in a few upper rooms occupied by lodgers. Nobody about but you and your following companion, and you don’t notice him. You see him so often that he is never seen. Even if you turned your head and saw him, you would only say ‘Good evening’ to him, and walk on. A suggestion that he was a possible murderer would not even make you laugh. It would be too silly.
And now you are at your gate. And now you have found your door key. And now you are in, and hanging up your hat and coat. The Missis has just called a greeting from the kitchen, whose smell is an echo of that greeting (herrings!), and you have answered it, when the door shakes under a sharp knock.
It’s as though you are perched on Whybrow’s shoulder (Frank’s comment), heading along with him into that awful abyss.
At one point near the conclusion, Burke gives some examples of recent history’s most notorious killers. One was Constance Kent, whom we encountered in Kate Summerscale’s masterful true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Another one was Eugene Aram, whose strange story I came across while researching the town of Knaresborough, which lies a short distance from Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
“The Hands of Mr Ottermole” was filmed in 1958 as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It can be viewed on Hulu.com, but the commercials make it hard going. The other option is to purchase it from Amazon streaming for $1.99. (It helps to know that particular episode occurs in Season Two, where it’s number 32.)
As with “The Case of Lady Sannox,” the ending of “Mr Ottermole” has been altered. In both cases, this change violates the intent of the author, and in the exact same way.
In Part Two, I’ll cover “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White, plus a few other related items of interest.