J. Jefferson Farjeon
On a fine autumn weekend, Lord Aveling hosts a hunting party at his country house, Bragley Court. Among the guests are an actress, a journalist, an artist, and a mystery novelist. The unlucky thirteenth is John Foss, injured at the local train station and brought to the house to recuperate – but John is nursing a secret of his own.
Soon events take a sinister turn when a painting is mutilated, a dog stabbed, and a man strangled. Death strikes more than one of the house guests, and the police are called. Detective Inspector Kendall’s skills are tested to the utmost as he tries to uncover the hidden past of everyone at Bragley Court.
This country-house mystery is a forgotten classic of 1930s crime fiction by one of the most undeservedly neglected of golden age detective novelists.
Being as brief as possible:
John Foss falls off a train and is scooped up by a ridiculously alluring widow, who drags him against his will to Bragley Court to recuperate. He’s stuck in a conveniently-placed anteroom, where he hears quite a lot of compromising conversations while the mystery blooms. A dog is murdered, a painting is vandalized, a man is found at the bottom of a cliff, then a blackmailer is murdered, and it just gets worse from there. There is a pretentious painter, some uncouth new money, a cynical journalist, a marginal actress, a tomboy heiress and her beau, the aristocrat who wishes he were said heiress’s beau, the aforementioned alluring widow, and the Chaters, whom no one can quite explain. Poor Foss is trapped in the middle with, potentially, multiple murderers.
All the elements are there for a classic novel of the Golden Age of Mystery. There is a country house, a closed set of suspects, a long string of bizarre happenings, and several dead bodies, and they all fit together nicely.
I loved the description, even though some of it got a little overly-introspective. It felt like a Golden Age mystery ought to feel, if that makes any sense.
I loved Inspector Kendall and his dry snark and the back-and-forth between himself and the country police he’s been tasked with sharpening up.
I also love the (wee spoiler, here) twist ending. As far as twist endings go, it wasn’t outlandish and eyeroll-inducing, as they often are. I genuinely did not see it coming, and it genuinely made sense, with the information the reader is given.
Too many characters to keep track of. I know it’s called Thirteen Guests, and that the number is an important point, but there wasn’t enough time to develop any individual characters, and as a result, all thirteen are shallow archetypes. They’re good archetypes, but not particularly interesting characters. This is definitely a plot-driven story (which is not a ‘bad’ point, but I prefer more balance than Thirteen Guests provided).
The dialogue also did not age well. I’m going to assume that some of these exchanges would have made sense to a reader when it was written, but even as a regular reader of period literature and a historian, a lot of these conversations meant absolutely nothing. It wasn’t even a question of slang so much as (I’m assuming) subtext and cultural innuendo. There was a lot of it, and it made for very slow reading.
In fact, much of it made for slow reading. I mentioned lovely, atmospheric description, but the quantity was excessive. Nowhere near Moby Dick levels of description, but there were several scattered pages that, frankly, bored me.
A pretty solid three-and-a-half stars. I liked it. It was good sitting-by-the-lake-in-a-folding-chair-with-a-steaming-cup-of-tea literature. I don’t know that I’d pick up another by Farjeon when I have a whole shelf of Christy staring reproachfully at me.
The really interesting thing here is British Library Crime Classics’ reprinting of works that had become quite rare, and I enjoyed this opportunity to read something that had disappeared for so many years.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.