The British created and perfected the classic country estate murder mystery – assemble a group of people (usually wealthy) for a long country weekend, add some underlying passions and tensions and a dash of romance, throw in a murder or two, and presto – you have yourself a mystery. Agatha Christie was well known for this sub-genre of the murder mystery.
J. Jefferson Farjeon’s (1883-1955) Thirteen Guests falls into that sub-genre, but with a number of unexpected twists and perhaps with even a poke of a little fun at this staple of the Golden Age of Mystery (1920s-1940s).
Lord Aveling of Bragley Court is hosting a hunting party weekend. Twelve guests are invited (13 is considered an unlucky number). But John Foss, a young man (not an invited guest) stumbles from the train at the local station, severely twists his ankle, and is taken in hand by one of Aveling’s guests, a beautiful woman named Nadine Leveridge. Good manners and hospitality being what they are in 1930s Britain, Foss is put up for the weekend in an anteroom at the manor. While immobilized with his ankle, he’s able to hear a considerable number of conversations in the hallway.
The guests include a Liberal Party member of Parliament, a stage actress, a sausage manufacturer (with his wife and daughter), an artist, a journalist, Mrs. Leveridge (a widow), a boilerplate mystery writer, and a couple whom seemed to be disliked by all of the guests. And there’s one uninvited guest, a man hovering around the station platform and then near the country estate.
The host has a secret, the guests have secrets, the servants have secrets – and a blackmailer is afoot. A man is found dead during the stag hunt, and then a second body is found.
|J. Jefferson Farjeon|
Besides having some fun with the mystery writer character, Farjeon tackles this mystery staple with something unusual. The story unfolds during different conversations between the guests, and it is only the reader and the author who see all of what’s happening. The local police inspector has his hands full untangling lies, misinformation, timing, and the events that have happened, but he proves up to the task (no bumbling country policeman here.)
Farjeon wrote more than 80 crime novels and other works. Thirteen Guests, first published in 1936, is one of three recently republished through The British Library Crime Classics series, the other two being Mystery in White and The Z Murders.
Thirteen Guests takes the classic country manor mystery to a new level. It’s one enjoyable mystery.
Top photograph: A country manor by Jon Luty via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.