When a deep fall of snow brings the 11.37 from London's Euston Station to a halt in a rural area on Christmas Eve, the scene shifts to a country house cut off from the world by bad weather (a favourite scenario of mine!) as the continuing storm sets in motion a tale of the strange events related in Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon.
Four occupants of the third-class carriage have abandoned the snowbound train in an attempt to walk to a station about six miles away in hopes of continuing their journey from there. The quartet consists of milquetoast clerk Robert Thomson, on his way to visit an aunt, platinum blonde chorus girl Jessie Noyes, who absolutely must get to Manchester that day for professional reasons, and siblings David and Lydia Carrington, who are going to spend Christmas at their uncle's town house.
The two other travellers in their compartment do not accompany them: there's an elderly bore name of Hopkins, who thinks the idea is madness, and Edward Maltby, an older man and member of the Royal Psychical Society. The latter has plans to visit an old house at Naseby in connection with the ghost of Charles I but has suddenly bolted from the train, much to the others' surprise.
Circumstances thwart the attempt to reach the station and the quartet are forced to take shelter in the house mentioned, which they are able to enter through the unlocked front door. Yet although the place is deserted, there's a kettle boiling, tea is laid out in the drawing room, fires have been lit -- and a bread-knife lies on the kitchen floor. A suggestive situation to say the least.
There's a sense of menace about the place and when the decamped Maltby and a Cockney giving his name as Smith show up the atmosphere becomes even more ominous. Particularly when Smith subsequently runs or rather flounders off and the bore Hopkins is rescued from the storm by Carrington and Thomson. Hopkins claims he is on his way to locate a constable because a dead man has been found in the compartment next to the one occupied by those now in the house. But is what he says true?
And that's just the start of this complex and engrossing mystery.
My verdict: The solution to the mystery gives one pause at first and yet, after consideration, the reader must admit it fits with all that went before. I read this novel at one sitting. Can there be any higher recommendation than that?
Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon is available from Poisoned Pen Press as part of their reprints of the British Library Crime Classics.