Book reviews

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.

Comments on: "Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon" (10)

  1. I must admit it was the covers that first attracted this series to me, a lot of them are from railway or tourist posters from the time! I haven’t heard of this one but will add it to the list!!

  2. The cover is lovely, I agree! I have been seeing this series around and I like that the British Library are making lesser known novels available. I’m not interested in classic crime so I wouldn’t check them out, but I’ve read some of the science fiction. A pity the story wasn’t as good as it promised. As for the French, there should have been some translation included or else that is just lazy editing.

  3. The covers are so wonderfully evocative of the era. I can’t stop raving about them!
    The realities of travel at the time probably wasn’t as glamourous as the posters made it seem, though!

  4. The first chapter was one of the best I’ve ever read. If the story had kept up with it, it would have been a masterpiece!
    The lack of a French translation really annoyed me. It was presumptuous and exclusive, and I didn’t like feeling excluded!
    I’m more likely to read crime than classic science fiction, but with me a little of each goes a long way 🙂

  5. Totally agree on translation – in olden times, it was assumed that the average reader had been educated in certain things, including languages. One of my favourite classics, Villette, has quite a bit of French in it, which wouldn’t originally have been translated but editions today are very helpful.

  6. Aha! I haven’t read this one – must add it to my list! I love the idea of the seven dead bodies in a room – reminds me of the Holmes story where they find three people in a room – one dead and the other two raving lunatics. (The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot) I’ve only read one book by Farjeon, and I did enjoy it but found it got very complicated – too fiendish for my poor little brain to work out. I do hate when they drop in a lot of French though…

  7. Now that you mention it, a great many characters in novels from a certain period drop the odd French word or phrase into their conversation, which I always felt was to show off their status, but you’ve made me realised that perhaps readers of the time would have felt as if they were part of the clique!
    I’ve got Villette in my Classics Club list, so will make sure I get a copy with English notes.

  8. I’m going to have to look up The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.
    The beginning of the book is extraordinarily good. I think you’ll appreciate Seven Dead, regardless of the complications as the story continues. Farjeon writes very well.

  9. I prefer my crime novels cosy rather than complicated but that cover is a beauty ☺️

  10. Isn’t it gorgeous? FictionFan told me ages ago that the covers were available as cushion covers and shopping bags from the British Library shop, although I think they may have come and gone. I did see Jane Austen socks, though!

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