The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station after an irritating journey on the night train. The man with whom he’d shared a carriage had snored loudly all night, keeping Richard awake. Now it’s three in the morning, and the porter suggests he should go to a nearby hotel where they will let him snooze in the smoking room until day properly breaks. Richard thinks this sounds like a good plan till he gets to the smoking room and discovers the snoring man has beaten him to it. But oddly the man is no longer snoring. Possibly because he’s been shot dead…

This is a thriller rather than a mystery, mostly involving long journeys across England by rail and road in pursuit of the mysterious villain who is bumping people off, apparently randomly, and leaving a small piece of enamelled metal in the shape of a Z as his calling card. The reader meets the villain long before Richard does, but although we know who he is and gradually what he’s doing, we still don’t know his motive until near the end. Richard’s motivation is much easier to understand – he caught sight of a beautiful young woman leaving the smoking room just as he went in, and he’s fearful that the police will assume she did the deed. So rather than helping the police with their enquiries like a good little citizen, he sets off to find the woman and, that achieved, to try to save her by finding out what’s going on. Meantime the police go about their business and it becomes a race as to whether the police or Richard and the woman, Sylvia Wynne, will arrive at the unknown destination first, and whether any of them will get there in time to stop the villain from fulfilling his mission.

Like a lot of thrillers, the story in this is well beyond the bounds of credibility and the villain is completely over the top in evilness. However, I really enjoyed Farjeon’s writing which in the descriptive passages is often quite literary, but in the action passages is fast-paced and propulsive. He’s very good at creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and several times he gets a real sense of creepy impending horror into the story. Richard’s exhaustion in the first chapters is very well done, leaving him a bit woozy and not thinking too clearly. Both Richard and the mysterious Sylvia are likeable characters and their dialogue is fun in that snappy style of the era, and this reader was happy to overlook Richard’s unlikely love at first sight and hope for their romance to blossom.

Challenge details:
Subject Heading:
Multiplying Murders
Publication Year: 19

As I said, the villain is over the top (Martin Edwards describes him perfectly as “lurid”), but that doesn’t prevent him from being scary! Farjeon gives the villain a disability to make him seem freakish – not unusual for that time, but not such comfortable reading now. However, it is effective even if it adds to the incredibility of his actions. He lacks all sympathy for others and in return it’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for him. A real baddie with no ambiguity in the characterisation, he made me shudder more than once!

J Jefferson Farjeon

Unfortunately Farjeon spoils it a bit at the end by having the villain and his accomplice reveal the motive, which has been the main mystery, through a conversation with each other, rather than either Richard or the police working it out. But the thriller aspect works well and I found the pages turning quickly as Richard and Sylvia raced towards danger. I’ve only read one Farjeon novel before, Thirteen Guests, and had a similar reaction – good writing and an interesting set-up, but let down a little by the way he resolves the mystery without the detective showing any particular brilliance. However, in this one I felt he developed a much more effective atmosphere of tension and danger that made me more willing to overlook any flaws. Overall I found it fast-paced and entertaining and, while it may not yet have made Farjeon one of my favourite vintage crime writers, I’ll certainly be happy to read more from him.

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34 thoughts on “The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

  1. The first thing I thought of when I was reading your post, FictionFan, is what a great setting a train can be for a novel like this (or for other types of crime novels). It adds a lot to the story, and I can see how it would build the suspense here. I know what you mean about the over-the-villain; you see a lot of them in thrillers. Still, I’m glad that didn’t really take away from the story for you. And it does sound as though the protagonists are interesting. Glad you mostly enjoyed this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, the idea of being stuck on a long train journey with a snorer got the book off to a good start! If that’s not a reason for murder, I don’t know what is! 😉 I do like Farjeon’s writing, and although the villain was over-the-top, he managed to make him credible enough to be terrifying at points. It’s a shame his endings are a bit weak – I suspect that might be why he went out of fashion. But the books are still enjoyable!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review of a premise that seems interesting though complicated. Glad it had some suspense, despite the spoilers and the villain who probably had an evil laugh that he engaged in from time to time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the sound of this, train travel and snoring are right up my street and your opening paragraph did make me laugh! I was surprised recently to watch the film Midsommer and find that using disability as a scare tactic, as you say that’s something that I thought went out decades ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, the idea of spending a long train journey with a snorer is surely an excellent motivation for murder – no jury would convict! Yes, I’ve noticed the disability thing in quite a lot of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, but often the disabilities are related to injuries received in WW1 – a reminder of how many men came back maimed for life. It’s unfortunate they’re often shown as the villains though – makes it a bit uncomfortable to modern eyes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the only Farjeon I’ve read so far, and I reacted much the same as you. I enjoyed the writing and also the banter of sorts between Richard and the Inspector, but the way the denouement came about was disappointing. As a result, I rated it 3.5

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m sorry the resolution proved disappointing for you, FF. I don’t believe I’ve ever read this author, but he’s come up with an intriguing premise. And the characters sound interesting, too … except for the baddie. I generally believe even the bad guys should be somewhat relatable to the reader (and not totally evil, though they might be that way in real life!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • On the whole I prefer the bad guys to be a bit more rounded too, but I must say he made this villain quite scary and the book was quite tense at some points! It’s a shame his endings are a bit of a let-down – I wonder if that’s why he fell out of fashion. But I enjoy his books enough that I’d happily read more of them

      Liked by 1 person

    • He certainly was an unambiguous baddie, for sure! Usually I like villains to be a bit more rounded, but Farjeon did a great job here of making his villain truly evil, and as a result, terrifying!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I preferred this one to Thirteen Guests by quite a long way. I felt there were too many characters in that one so they all merged into a confusing mass. In this one the main cast is much smaller, so they’re better developed. Plus the villain is horribly evil… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Maybe it says something about the author’s confidence in police and detective work that he doesn’t have them solve the crimes! The premise does sound good, but I have enough on my place to add it to the wishlist. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I pretty much agree with you about Farjeon, not quite the top echelon especially in his endings of the novels, but with intriguing possibilities in the story. I think I might have liked Thirteen Guests a little more than you did, but again the ending does it no favors. It does really bring home how many men came back from the war severely scarred, it’s too bad so many are portrayed in frightening ways. What a perfect setting though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did enjoy Thirteen Guests, but I felt the problem was in the title – too many characters, so that most of them never really became defined. Had it been Eight Guests it might have worked better! 😉 Yes, I’ve really noticed the casual references in vintage crime to people with missing limbs, or blind or deaf due to war injuries. Sadly it must have been commonplace. But it does feel uncomfortable when those disabilities are used to make someone seem scary.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I found it rather entertaining (which I can’t say for most of the Farjeons I have read). And this passage is wonderful: Once upon a time, Ted Diggs had had a dog. It had died an unnatural death on the road, and he had always wanted another. In his opinion, a dog was better company than a woman. Just say, “Shut Up,” and it did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yes, I suspect that’s why so many men are fond of their dogs! 😉 I like his writing very much – I just wish he was better at endings, which always seem to be a bit of a let-down. But I’ve only read two of his books – I’d like to read more and see if he can win me over properly.


  9. I like the sound of this one, and you’ve made a really interesting distinction – the action parts move well, but the descriptive parts and others are very literary, which is such a nice mix! I find too many thrillers these days lack the good writing set-up that prepares one for the quicker bits, so nice you can appreciate it in this classic novel.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I always appreciate when an author can change their style to suit the bit of the story they’re at. As you say, some thrillers don’t spend enough time on the bits between the thrills, and others are so busy being literary they slow the thrills down to a crawl. It’s so nice when the pace matches the story!

      Liked by 2 people

  10. It sounds really interesting. It’s funny that the story starts in a train, as I just finished a non-fiction book on the first railway murder, from Victorian times. :))

    Liked by 2 people

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