Mystery in White was mentioned on blogs and a podcast as being something of a runaway hit in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The premise, a group of people in a claustrophobic setting with an undercurrent of suspicion, is my husband's favourite sort of story so I wasted no time in ordering a copy. The book arrived just as I was finishing the wonderful Our Spoons Came From Woolworths so I scooped it up with a promise to my husband to be quick.
First published in 1937, the very effective cover art depicts a vintage steam engine stuck fast in thick snow with a village off in the distance. The warm lights glowing from the train hint that night is fast approaching and not just any night but Christmas Eve.
When the 11:37 train out of Euston station has been immovable for nearly an hour some of the restless travellers from the third-class section decide to take their chances on foot. After enduring a tiring slog in whipping winds and driving snow two groups find their way to the front door of a country house....
'The ringing of the bell brought no response. Knocking proved equally fruitless. For a short while it seemed as though they were doomed to further disappointment, although David was in a mood to break windows if the necessity arose. Then Lydia took the bull by the horns and tried the doorhandle. It turned, and she shoved the door open with a little sigh of relief. A roof, even without the invitation to stay beneath it, had become an urgent necessity.'
A fire is blazing, the table has been laid, and a butter-knife lies in the middle of the kitchen floor. There's no sign of the home's occupants but a large portrait hanging on the wall of a distinguished man seems to follow the guests with his eyes. Upon arrival, a gentleman from the second group announces that a passenger from the train compartment next to his had died...and it looked like murder. Right away, suspicion falls on the cockney guest, Mr. Smith. Physiognomy was a popular concept in the early nineteenth century and comes into play with the author describing him as having a low forehead, the back of his head is flat, and he has bushy eyebrows. Not quite reason enough to commit someone to trial if you ask me but it's all part of what makes this mystery feel authentic to the era it's from.
Lydia's efficient nature means a rota for duties is drawn up in no time and David is assigned the duty of costing out everything the group uses or consumes so proper remuneration can eventually be made. The very idea that a crisis would deprive anyone of Christmas is preposterous so Lydia reassigns her Christmas gifts, hangs up stockings, and cuts boughs to decorate the handsome house. You would be mistaken if you think Lydia is simply the domestic sort as in no time at all she makes it very clear there is to be no keeping information from the women in a misguided act of protection. In the meantime, another guest is confined to bed with a twisted ankle and can only wait for the creak of the stairs meaning a bowl of soup is on its way. Well, at least Jessie hopes it's something....or someone providing comfort rather than something deadly sinister.
I'm not usually a reader of mysteries but Mystery in White was a lot of fun; I won't hesitate to order more titles from the British Library Crime Classics series. The characters are an eclectic mix and it was interesting to watch the relationship dynamics develop. A momentary scene of high drama towards the end will probably come off as a bit cheesy to many modern readers but again, it's all part of the fun of reading a good old-fashioned mystery.
Don't feel that you've missed the train (couldn't resist) on this one just because Christmas has passed. Mystery in White is well worth picking up to keep you company on a cold night or to give someone as a gift, especially if they're planning a trip that involves rail travel. Delightful!