Writing a mystery novel is a complicated proposition. There is much to consider. The sleuth should be human but not too human; the death(s) should not upset the reader unduly; the suspects all need to be neatly numbered and accounted for. You have to calibrate the pace, ramp up the nervous tension and supply a satisfying solution. And, this is crucial, the plot must be startling but not ludicrous.
Perfection is for the gods, of course, and there are plenty of successful ‘imperfect’ murder mysteries. If a story is entertaining enough and roughly adheres to the accepted template, readers in search of diversion will overlook the usual pitfalls of Golden Age Detective Stories (overwriting, small plot holes, jingoism, raging misogyny and offensive stereotypes). As long as there is (a) a crime and (b) a solution to the crime, many of us feel we got what we came for.
But a line needs to be drawn somewhere and there are authors who take liberties. They treat their readers like saps. They spin a tale that wouldn’t stand up to the slightest puff of wind and are proud of themselves. There is one book in particular whose plot is so cuckoo that it left me gasping for air and wondering how any self-respecting publisher would go along with it.
I speak of Seven Dead, by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon. One of Mystery’s old pros, J.J. Farjeon (1883-1955) wrote more than 100 novels, most of them crime stories. Some of them are good. Thirteen Guests (1936), for example, is a diverting tale along the lines of Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie. His play Number Seventeen was made into a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s clear that Farjeon could do a decent job when he wanted to. But when he sat down to write Seven Dead, something diabolical happened to his brain. “What,” I imagine he said, “if I wrote something so outlandish it made Alice in Wonderland look like investigative journalism?”
The reason this book upsets me so much is that it starts out so well—a standard whodunnit, nicely written, good characters, snappy dialogue, a romance angle. One feels that one is in good hands, not gripped in the paws of a fiction-mangling maniac. If there had been any sign of authorial misconduct before chapter 25 then I would have gently laid the book aside tut-tutting. As it was, I read 80% of the thing before realizing it was pure hogwash. That makes me mad.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, I will now describe the plot to you. If you plan to read the book (the more fool you) and want to do so without prejudice, then don’t read any more of this.
The book opens with a cockney spoon-thief breaking into a country house and discovering seven grimy corpses in a drawing room. The shutters have been nailed down and cloth stuffed up the chimney. In the center of the mantelpiece is a vase supporting an ancient cricket ball. A rolled up piece of paper in the hand of one of the victims has writing on it. On one side, written in ink:
THE SUICIDE CLUB
On the other side, in red pencil:
Particulars at address 59.16s 6.6e.G
The side written in pencil was probably written in the victim’s last moments because in his other hand he holds the stub of a red pencil.
Detective Inspector Kendall and journalist Hazeldean get on the case. They figure out that the Fenners have gone across the English Channel to Boulogne. Hazeldean (having fallen in love with a portrait of Dora), decides to sail over there on his yacht. Meanwhile, Kendall figures out that the seven victims had arrived by sailing up the river in a decrepit boat, that someone had let them into the house, locked them in the room and gassed them using a rubber tube fitted into the keyhole. The murderer had then cycled to a big flat field where an aeroplane had picked him up and taken him to France.
We go to Boulogne. Hazeldean finds Dora and arranges to join Dora and her uncle at the pension where they’re staying. Fenner is having an affair with Paula the woman who owns the pension. Paula’s creepy husband Dr. Jones has been coming on to Dora and her uncle has not been discouraging him. Dora is unhappy. She does not know about the seven dead people in her house back in England.
While Hazeldean is about to tell Dora the bad news, Fenner arrives to tell everyone that Dr. Jones died in a plane crash. Hazeldean tells him, in turn, about the seven dead people in his house. Fenner says he’s off to contact the police—right away!
By the time Kendall gets to Boulogne, Fenner has stolen Hazeldean’s yacht. It’s clear that he murdered the seven people with a new form of gas. He also killed Dr. Jones (who did not die in a crash, though Fenner tried to make it look as if he had).
But why did he murder them?
The code on the piece of paper (59.16s 6.6e) is a geographical coordinate for a tiny island in the Tristan da Cunha group. Detective Inspector Kendall, Hazeldean, Dora and Hazeldean’s hired sailors head off in a new yacht for a tiny island in the South Atlantic. When they get there, they discover an abandoned campsite, a homemade cricket bat and a notebook in a cave wall. This notebook conveniently gives us all the back story we need.
Ten years earlier in South Africa a man named Cauldwell was wanted for murder but escaped the country on board a boat called Good Friday. He helped arrange a mutiny, wanting to ensure the boat wouldn’t reach its original destination as that would result in his arrest. Unfortunately, the ship was so badly damaged in the mutiny that when a storm came along, it sank. Eight people managed to scramble into a lifeboat and they all ended up on a tiny island in the Tristan da Cunha group in the South Atlantic.
For months the eight of them stayed there building a boat from driftwood, eating penguins and playing cricket to pass the time. In all that time, in spite of having a newspaper containing a photograph that identified Cauldwell as a fugitive murderer, no one noticed.
The group slept in caves and Cauldwell shared his cave with a man named John Fenner who was going to England to take care of his niece. While sleep-talking, Fenner divulged that he had figured out half of the formula of a new kind of poison gas that was sure to prove very lucrative. Cauldwell asked him all about it and suddenly became very friendly with him.
On the day that the boat was finally finished, everyone decided to have one final game of cricket, for old time’s sake. Cauldwell (who had already stolen John Fenner’s secret-gas formula and papers), pretended to chase the cricket ball and before anyone knew what was happening, he waded into the water, stole the boat and set off out for freedom.
He drifted along for some time and was finally rescued, claiming to be John Fenner, the sole survivor of the Good Friday. As the ship’s surgeon (Dr. Jones) helped nurse him back to health, he learned some of the true story. Realizing that his patient would probably get rich from the new gas, Dr. Jones made a deal with him that amounted to blackmail. If Cauldwell helped him with money, Dr. Jones would stay quiet about his true identity.
Cauldwell subsequently goes to Dora’s place to impersonate her uncle, with occasional trips to Boulogne where Dr. Jones lives with his French floozy. Somehow, in spite of having gone in for murder more than chemistry back in South Africa, Cauldwell successfully manages to figure out the rest of Fenner’s formula and to produce the new kind of lethal gas.
Meanwhile, back on the cold rock in the South Atlantic, the others were just as mad as seven wet hens. They carve out the Latin words FIAT JUSTICIA RUAT CAELUM (let vengeance fall from the sky) on a homemade sign, probably deciding it was no use saving wood to make another boat. Everyone lays hands on it and vows vengeance.
Then after a while an empty boat comes along.
It’s a shame that Farjeon decided to omit the most amazing and interesting part of this, i.e. the fact that seven shipwreck survivors manage to sail, in a wreck, from the Tristan da Cunha group all the way up to Benwick. And they make the trip without attracting so much as a raised eyebrow. This is a journey of about 6,000 miles as the crow flies through some of the most treacherous waters on earth. The crew (surprisingly strong considering their subsistence diet of penguin and sea elephant) manage to avoid freak waves, hard winds, men overboard, lightning strikes and collisions with other boats (or sleeping whales or floating containers). That trip, we are to suppose, was a doddle.
And after years of privation, they don’t stop to shower or eat or phone their nearest and dearest or anything. Instead, they go straight to Cauldwell’s place for a showdown. They all politely file into a room that’s completely shut up and make no kind of effort to break the door down. They just sit there and wait to be gassed, not forgetting to first write down the coordinates of a godforsaken island in the South Atlantic. If it were me, I might have written something a bit more to the point, e.g. ‘get Fenner’ or ‘Fenner is Cauldwell, we were shipwrecked.’ Anything, really, to help the case along.
But it works. Kendall has a hunch that Cauldwell will pop along back to the island so he, Hazeldean and friends go there and hang around for a week. Sure enough, Cauldwell does show up. At this point even the villain has started to doubt the author’s competence:
“Why—am I—here?” he wondered.
He must know his reason! He’d had a reason! He would remember it in a moment. It was only that last storm that had disturbed his mind, making him forget things. That tumble down the hatchway, you know. Naturally, a bump like that…
“Ah! The diary!”
That was it! The diary! Of course.
Of course. The diary. Hidden in a tiny crack in a cave on one of the world’s remotest islands. Makes perfect sense.
Inspector Kendall and Hazeldean leave a revolver beside the vengenace sign and hide to see what Cauldwell does. Cauldwell, who has never shown a milligram of conscience in his life, is suddenly beset by ghosts playing cricket. When he sees the sign and the revolver, he decides he’s had enough of life and shoots himself. Kendall and Hazeldean bury him there and everything is wrapped up nicely.
Not quite the straight bat, Farjeon.