I pounced on Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon from the British Library Crime Classics series when I came across this book in the large print section of my local library.
As always for a book from this series, the cover art is beautiful. In my opinion the team who create these covers always get them exactly right. Golden Age crime novels are well suited to art-deco artwork and I can imagine that some people probably collect these books for their covers.
The story was introduced by Martin Edwards who teases the reader with a brief description of the plot before providing an interesting biography of the author, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, which included the details that Farjeon’s greatest worry was that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family financially. This fear spurred Farjeon to write prolifically.
Seven Dead started off with one of the most intriguing first chapters I’ve ever read. The first line, ‘This is not Ted Lyte’s story’ introduced a petty criminal who broke into Haven House on the coast of England with the intention of stealing silverware only to find seven dead people in a locked room.
When Lyte ran out of the house in terror, dropping spoons as he went, he was chased by a passer-by until he ran smack-bang into a policeman who, as expected, asked “What’s all this?” The passer-by was Thomas Hazeldean, a yachtsman and reporter who had moored his yacht in a creek near Haven House. Hazeldean accompanied Detective Inspector Kendall back to Haven House to discover what had frightened the thief. At Haven House, they found the seven dead bodies but could not discover who had killed the victims or why they had been killed.
Hazeldean was intrigued by both the mystery and by a portrait in the house of a young girl which had been pierced by a bullet that had seemingly come from the room with the dead bodies and on learning that the girl in the portrait was Dora Fenner, the neice of the owner of Haven House, Hazeldean set off in his yacht Spray across the channel to France to find and protect her, while Kendall carried on in England.
In France, all was not as it seemed. Hazeldean found Dora and realised she was being guarded by the mysterious occupants of the household where she and her uncle, John Fenner, were staying. Not only that, Fenner was acting strangely.
Unfortunately at this point, I lost some enthusiasm for the story. To begin with, the characters sometimes spoke French and since I couldn’t even guess at what they were saying I lost the gist of what was happening. The writing itself was very good, clear and descriptive enough for me to be able to imagine the characters, the place and to get a feel for the atmosphere, but the plot’s twists and turns once Hazeldean went to France became overly complicated and far-fetched. Not only that, I also found the idea of Hazeldean falling in love with Dora’s portrait from childhood to be creepy. When he met her in real life and she turned out to be someone who fainted constantly from nerves, I couldn’t understand what he saw in her. I guess some people just want to be the ‘protector’ in a relationship.
I had been reading the story with the intention of solving the case, but there was no way I could have done this and to be fair, Seven Dead wasn’t that kind of story. Instead, the murderer’s identity and motive became clear as the story continued. Despite my criticism, I would definitely read another book by this author based on the quality of his writing and that fantastic first chapter.