Wednesday, January 6, 2016

“The Z Murders” by J. Jefferson Farjeon

A familiar, common train journey, arriving at London’s Euston Station. Richard Temperley is returning home, temporarily to stay with his sister until his flat becomes available. The discomforts of travel are mitigated by an upgrade to a first-class car, except for the elderly man snoring all the way to the end.

It’s still early, so Temperley is advised by a porter to visit a nearby hotel, which casts a friendly eye on people sleeping for a few hours in the lounge by the fire. As he arrives, he notices a beautiful young woman rushing from the lounge. In the lounge he finds his snoring train companion, ostensibly sleeping near a window. Except he isn’t snoring. He’s dead.

Thus begins The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon, first published in 1932 and republished last fall by the British Library as part of its Crime Classics series. Farjeon (1883-1955) was a prolific writer during the Golden Age of the mystery and detective novel, from the 1920s through the 1940s. He wrote some 63 crime novels during his career, not to mention plays and short stories and three novels in the 1940s under the pseudonym of Anthony Swift. He’s not well known today, but he was quite popular in his lifetime, as was admired by such writers as Dorothy Sayers.

The Z Murders is about a serial killer, surprising to those of us contemporary readers and television viewers who think serial killers are a 20th century (and later) phenomenon. As mystery writer Martin Edwards notes in the introduction, serial killers actually first appeared in crime and detective fiction in the 19th century. But in The Z Murders, what appears to be random killings turns out to be a rather diabolical plan.

J. Jefferson Farjeon
And the beautiful young woman, Sylvia Wynne, that Temperley sees rushing from the hotel lounge is at the center of the murders. She knows far more about what’s happening that she wants to tell, but Temperley can’t believe she’s the killer. In fact, he’s rather smitten with Miss Wynne, and throws caution and good sense to the wind as he follows and joins her in uncovering what’s happening, simultaneously trying to keep Scotland Yard at bay.

Edwards points out that two features of The Z Murders – a hint (or more than a hint) of romance and occasional humor are Farjeon trademarks, helping to lighten what can be some fairly intense writing. Several of the scenes, involving the villain, are still intense when read more than 80 years after they were written.

It’s another good mystery, and there are still several in the Crime Classics series I haven’t read. I hope the British Library keeps adding new titles.


Top photograph: The original 1932 book cover for The Z Murders, published by the Crime Club.

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