J. JEFFERSON FARJEON – The Z Murders. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1932. Dial Press, US, hardcover, 1932. Poison Pen Press / British Library Crime Classics, US, softcover, 2015.

    … there is one London you may never or rarely have met. It is the London of the cold grey hour, and you are wise to miss it for in its period and transition it has nothing gracious to offer you.

   Long before many of us became sick of the serial killer novel, there was the sequential or series killer, sometimes a madman, but more often than not a man with a plot that called for a series of murders either to enact it or cover it up.

   Many of the greats of the Detective story writers of the Golden Age mined these fields including such classics as Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Francis Beedings’ Death Walks in Estrepps, and Philip MacDonald’s (writing as Martin Porlock) The Mystery of the Dead Police aka X vs Rex (MacDonald indeed wrote two others, the most famous being his last, The List of Adrian Messenger), and on this side of the pond S. S. Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case and Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails.

   These differ wildly from the examples of modern writers, if in nothing but good taste and no love for gore for it’s own sake, but also in the fact the killer, whatever their motive, is more a natural force than a human. The game is the thing in these books, not the psychology of the killer or the sleuth (though that plays a role in the Van Dine and Queen titles mentioned).

   J. (Joseph) Jefferson Farjeon was a critic, historical novelist, and children’s author who also wrote popular mysteries. He had two series characters, Ben the Tramp (one of whose adventures was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Number 17) and a reformed criminal turned detective appropriately called X. Crook, but neither features in this entertaining melodrama that falls somewhere between John Buchan’s shockers and Michael Innes more playful thrillers in style and mood.

   Richard Temperley, our hero, is on his way back from the Lake District by train and spends an uncomfortable night in his compartment thanks to a noisy and unpleasant elderly man.

    “That man and I are made from different chemicals,” reflected Temperley. “How pleasant it would be to murder him.”

   When the train lays over at Euston for a few hours in the cold grey dawn Temperley and the elderly man both take refuge at a small hotel nearby, but no sooner do they settle in than the man is found shot to death in an easy chair, and Temperley catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman who promptly flees.

   Detective Inspector James shows up and while interviewing Temperley finds a curious crimson enamel metal shaped like a Z. Soon London will tremble before that Z.

   Temperley finds the woman’s handbag, but like the lunk-headed heroes of countless adventures conceals it from the police — well, she was beautiful — and from it discovers she is one Sylvia Wynne of Chelsea. Naturally he goes to allow her to explain her obvious innocence, but finds her gone, and another enamel Z on her carpet.

   He does catch up to her, and finds her too frightened to talk, and loses her again, and chases her cross country for the rest of the book also pursued by the sinister Mr. Z (a really least likely suspect) through cliffhangers, improbabilities, and wild action.

   I will only say, Mr. Z is a nasty piece of work, and this would have made a fine Hitchcock or Carol Reed outing.

   This all works because unlike many in the same field, Farjeon could, and bothered to, write. His style has pleasing literary flourishes (never too much or heavy handed), humor, and a near Stevensonian sense of romance.

   Poison Pen Press has brought two Farjeon novels back into print in their British Library of Crime Classics series with informative introductions by Martin Edwards (to whom I am indebted for some of the material in this review), and yet another ebook publisher has released several of his Ben the Tramp novels.

   This may be dated, but it is tremendous fun and works on its own as an entertaining thriller with no reliance on nostalgia and no need for forgiveness, save some of the logic you still have to forgive the form today.