Saturday, June 13, 2020
"With no disrespect to Art, your picture is a secondary consideration," retorted the inspector, rather sharply. "I am merely hoping it will give me a line on graver matters."
Thirteen Guests (1936) by J. Jefferson Farjeon
John Foss, having just been turned down by the girl he wanted to marry, takes his bruised heart and a small bag and heads out of London. Where to? Anywhere. He doesn't much care; he just wants to get away from the crowds of people. When the woman in front of him buys a ticket for Flensham, he decides that is a destination as good as any and follows suit. Upon arrival, he has more than a bruised heart--he manages to mangle his leg a bit as the train moves on before he's quite done getting off.
Nadine Leveridge, the woman he took his travel ideas from, scoops him up into a car and takes him to Bragley Court--the country house where she plans to spend the weekend. She waves aside his protests that Lord Aveling won't be pleased to have an uninvited guest telling him that one more guest among a group that includes an actress, a famous cricketer, an artist, a politician, a journalist with a nose for gossip, a mystery novelist, and a couple who were brought along at the politician's invitation won't bother the lord of the manor at all. She proves herself right when John is toted into the house. Lord Aveling welcomes him, sets him on a couch in an ante room, and offers him all the manor can provide in the way of hospitality. Of course, the norm in lordly hospitality shouldn't include murder, should it?
Foss soon finds himself with a front-row seat to a weekend full of sinister events and murderous activities...beyond the normal bloodshed of a country house hunting party. It starts with the mutilation of Leicester Pratt's latest masterpiece, a portrait of Anne (daughter of the house). Then a noisy dog is silenced permanently, followed by the discovery of the strangled body of an unknown man. More death follows and Inspector Kendall arrives to ferret out the secrets hidden in halls of Bradley Court. Does murder have anything to do with Lord Aveling's dalliance with the actress? Or perhaps with the fact that three of his guests were accosted by the unknown man at the train station? Is Harold Taverley, the cricketer, really as open and honest as he seems? What secrets lie in the past of our politician, Sir James Earnshaw? Just how much of an actress is Zena Wilding? Does she play a part off-stage as well as on? Lionel Bultin is good at nosing out others' secrets and writing them up in the news--how many secrets does he have of his own? And Edyth Fermoy-Jones plots fictional murders for a living--has she decided to try her hand at real life mayhem? There are marriage secrets and fraudulent pasts as well as a bit of blackmail and plenty of criss-crossing trails to keep our official bloodhounds busy.
Farjeon starts strong in this one. He gives us very good descriptions of Nadine Leveridge and John Foss and we're ready to settle down with these two as our main characters. He also provides detailed thumbnail sketches for the rest of the guests and their host and hostess. We get very interested in a few of them--Edyth Fermoy-Jones, for instance. And then the murders happen and John pretty much drops off the face of the earth and Nadine doesn't figure much at all. It's a bit disappointing.
But even though I was disappointed with the follow-through on some of the characters that Farjeon seemed at great pains to bring to our attention, the plot was quite fascinating. I was invested in discovering how the painting and the dog and the mysterious stranger would all tie together. I was waiting for the motive that would explain why three people had to die. I enjoyed Inspector Kendall and his investigative methods. Then the ending comes and the explanation. And it fell just a bit flat. I can't really tell you why without spoiling--so if you'd like to know more, feel free to highlight the apparently blank space that follows. Otherwise, just know that this is a decent outing by Farjeon. Not quite up to his work in The Mystery in White, but still very interesting and fun to read. It definitely was the right book for this past week when I was waiting on medical news for my Dad. My only quibbles are with the character follow-through and some of the wrap-up. ★★★ and 1/2--I had hoped to go higher
Spoiler explanation: So--once we get to the end we find out that one of the "murders" is a mistake. Nobody really intended for him to die even though he was a quite despicable character. And the last "murder" isn't even a murder at all--it's just an accident. And is a second convenient death for a less than lovely character. It made for such a tidy ending. Nobody had to go to jail. The crime is all solved. But it wasn't the satisfying ending I would have liked.
Deaths = 3 (one strangled; one poisoned; one accident--thrown from bicycle)
She is very ill. She does jigsaws, and is a lesson to everybody. That is, if anybody is a lesson to anybody else, which I doubt. (Nadine Leveridge; p. 12)
He concentrated on the pain, trying to trick himself. He rejoiced in its re-discovery, and saddled it with responsibility for his condition. Pain played the deuce with anyone. It temporarily distorted values, and gave fictitious significance to unimportant things. (p. 33)
Nonsense--nobody's wood! Some people build wooden walls around themselves, that's all (Nadine; p. 50)
LP: I should never have thought you feared the truth, Nadine.
NL: I don't. But no artist can paint the whole truth. He just paints his half--and the other half can't answer back from the canvas. The half I fear is your half--all by its little lonesome!
(Leichester Pratt, Nadine Leveridge; p. 51)
Mr. Pratt seems to have the one object of preventing you from knowing what step he's going to do next. I can usually follow anybody, but he beats me. (Nadine; p. 63)