Review published on September 7, 2017.
Who’d be a burglar, eh? You find a nice looking and conveniently empty house, you manage to gain entry in a suitably quiet fashion, you help yourself to some bread and cheese, you go looking for the silver spoon collection, and then you find a locked room containing seven dead bodies. Mass murder might not have been the prize that Ted Lyte hoped to find when he broke into Haven House, but that’s certainly what he ended up with. Traumatic as the discovery might have been for him though, for the forces of law and order, it’s just as well that Ted decided to engage in a spot of housebreaking, since it resulted in a heinous crime being uncovered far more quickly than the perpetrator had hoped – so quickly in fact that the killer ultimately cannot effect an escape from justice.
The task of identifying the seven victims and tracking down their killer falls to Detective Inspector Kendall, although he is ably assisted by Thomas Hazeldean, a freelance reporter and yachtsman, who happened to have been the one to apprehend Ted Lyte when he ran screaming from Haven House. Their respective investigations take them across the channel to Boulogne, where they attempt to locate the owners of the house and determine how the seven unfortunate souls met their fate.
Seven Dead is an atmospheric and unpredictable murder mystery by J. Jefferson Farjeon (author of Mystery in White, which proved to be a mega Christmas bestseller when it was republished as part of the British Library Crime Classics series in 2014). Detective Inspector Kendall is an experienced and keen-eyed investigator. He proves to be a methodical and diligent sleuth, although he is not particularly patient with his subordinates. Kendall is perhaps oddly keen to allow Thomas Hazeldean to muscle in on the investigation, but he is certainly not one of the bumbling police officers so often seen in classic crime fiction – he recognises that the assistance of an amateur investigator could be useful, but he doesn’t actually have to rely on someone else to crack the case.
As for Hazeldean, his work as a reporter would seem to justify his interest in the murders, although Farjeon adds a slight romantic slant to his character so that he dashes off to Boulogne in search of a pretty face as much as anything else. Still though, he’s very much a brave man of action and, while he does uncover some vital clues, his approach to the investigation contrasts nicely with Kendall’s more cerebral efforts. The pair of them make a very efficient detective duo, with their differences really complementing each other and their dedication ensuring that justice is eventually served. There are certainly a good number of suspicious characters for them to deal with during their hunt for the killer. In fact, everyone staying or working at Madame Paula’s guesthouse in Boulogne seems to be at least a little bit sinister.
Farjeon lays down a good trail of clues throughout Seven Dead, which means that it is perfectly possible for the reader to work out the identity of the killer alongside Kendall and Hazeldean. However, the great twist contained within the story doesn’t concern the identification of the murderer, but rather the reason behind the killings. The explanation ends up sounding utterly plausible when relayed by Detective Inspector Kendall, but the killer’s motivation was very much out of left field. Looking back, there were a couple of clues in that regard, although piecing all the detail together would certainly have been a difficult task. The finale of the story might perhaps seem a little over the top at first, but on reflection it fits in nicely with the sense of dread and finality that permeates the story. Seven Dead is a suspenseful and highly original mystery novel and it is another fine addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.
Erin Britton 5/5
Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon
British Library Publishing 9780712356886 pbk Sep 2017
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