Farjeon’s gift for striking hooks (Mystery in White, 2016, etc.) reaches a perverse pinnacle in this reprint from 1939 by the British Library of Crime Classics.
On a whim, Ted Lyte, a minor-league pickpocket with ambitions above his station, breaks into a house off Havenford Creek, Benwick. It’s not until he’s let himself in through an obliging window that he wonders whether he should look downstairs for silver or upstairs for jewelry. At any rate, the question is moot, for moments after he opens the wrong door, Ted is fleeing in terror, closely followed by freelance journalist and amateur yachtsman Thomas Hazeldean, who’s struck by the stranger’s suspicious behavior. But who wouldn’t run away from Haven House when he finds the corpses of six men and one woman decorously arrayed around the drawing room? There’s no immediate indication of the cause of all these deaths or even of the identities of the dead people; the only clues are a bullet through the portrait of a young girl hanging in the drawing room, a dead cat on the path outside, and a paper inscribed “WITH APOLOGIES FROM THE SUICIDE CLUB” on one side and “Particulars at address 59•16s 4•6e G” on the other. To indulge in Farjeon’s own brand of dry understatement, it’s quite a riddle for DI Kendall and Sgt. Wade, and it’s lucky for them that Hazeldean has taken such an interest in the case. And lucky for the reader as well, since his adventures when he pursues a lead to the Pension Paula, the house in Boulogne that’s currently home to John Fenner, the master of Haven House, and his niece, Dora, the original of the defaced portrait, are a good deal more interesting, if more helter-skelter, than Kendall and Wade’s straight-faced attempts to discover the pattern beneath the chaos in Benwick.
Readers won’t be surprised to find the answers less compelling than the memorably baroque riddle of the opening tableau.
Poet and celebrated children’s book writer Eleanor Farjeon was born into an artistic family: her father was a novelist and her mother was the daughter of the American actor Joseph Jefferson. Farjeon’s family home was a literary and artistic hub. Though she never received a formal education, Farjeon was tremendously influenced by the creative energy around her, an experience she recounted in her best-selling memoir, A Nursery in the Nineties (1935). In the book, Farjeon depicts herself as a dreamy child; her father’s death, when she was 22, meant she had to begin to write to earn a living. Farjeon’s first books were intended for adults: the collection of poems Pan-Worship and other Poems (1908), and The Soul of Kol Nikon (1914), a fantasy novel inspired by the Celtic Twilight movement. Farjeon developed a close friendship with the poet Edward Thomas during these years, and after his death in World War I published a book detailing his importance to her growth as a writer and vice versa, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (1958).
Writing to another soldier in World War I produced Farjeon’s most famous work, Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard (1921), which she sent to Victor Haslam, an officer serving in France, in installments. Though intended for adult readers, it eventually became known as a children’s book, and Farjeon achieved fame as a writer for children. Farjeon was prolific, penning an operetta with her brother, The Two Bouquets (1936), a children’s play The Glass Slipper (1944), novels for adults such as Ladybrook (1931) and Miss Granby’s Secret (1940), and many, many works for children, among them Silver-Sand and Snow (1951), the poetry collection The Children’s Bells (1957), and The Little Bookroom (1955), which won the Carnegie Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen medal. She received the American Regina medal in 1959. The Children’s Book Circle in England established the Eleanor Farjeon award in her honor.