The Z Murders: A mystery thriller by J Jefferson Farjeon which contains three delightful references to cricket
The Z Murders: A mystery thriller by J Jefferson Farjeon which contains three delightful references to cricket

J Jefferson Farjeon is one of the forgotten names of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. That by itself, as mentioned earlier in these pages, is a mystery that would baffle the best of that era. In this piece, Arunabha Sengupta writes about The Z Murders, a fast-paced mystery thriller which contains three delightful allusions to the noble game.

J Jefferson Farjeon again. I can’t seem to get enough of the man and his work.

Perhaps he was not the best crime novelist of the golden age of British detective fiction, albeit a very good one and one of the most prolific. Certainly, he was not the most celebrated.

Yet, if one loves to immerse oneself in the morbid imagination of these writers who have created an enthralling landscape of crime and detection, and, moreover, if one is tickled by references to cricket, Farjeon can be counted upon to deliver the delights.

Because, as Martin Edwards confirmed, Farjeon was a cricket fan. Edwards is bound to know. He is, after all, the author of the magisterial The Golden Age of Murder, the defining book on the writers of that era.

Earlier in these pages, we have already touched upon The Thirteen Guests, a gripping Farjeon country house mystery which had a crucial thread of cricket running through it. And apart from the cricketing content, the novel was sparkling and brilliant.

The Z Murders, published just before England embarked upon the infamous Bodyline odyssey, is perhaps not in the same league as a detective novel. The plot is not as tight. It treads on the boundaries of melodrama from time to time. The protagonist is too much of a whimsical busybody interfering in things way beyond his business. The enormous trust bestowed on this person by the police inspector investigating a homicide reads way too far-fetched. Besides, as Edwards puts it, “ the portrayal of the principal villain is lurid”. There is also some dialogue that many characters have within their own mental framework which read a bit stilted. And at least to me the end seems a trifle hurried.

However, it is as gripping as any of Farjeon’s offerings and keeps the reader on the edge through an action-packed narrative that as a genre borders more on the thriller than on a mystery. It was also one of the rather rarer books dealing with a serial killer before that particular brand of villain became standard fare. And of course, being Farjeon, there are many caring flourishes of prose that elevates the novel to more than just a murder mystery. There are snatches of poetic romance and also dollops of philosophy laced with humour.

Consider this example: “If one man’s meat is another man’s poison, one person’s murder may be another person’s income. Thus, tragedy and happiness interweave, forming life’s queer pattern. Fall over a cliff tomorrow, and somebody will benefit from your fall — a press photographer, a gossipmonger, a little boy who had previously been rather bored with existence, or an aunt in India.”

And, there is of course the reason why the book finds its way into these pages. Three allusions to cricket which underline that Farjeon was a fan of the great game, and a serious one at that. They are not run off the mill references to a match being played or some metaphor of being hit for a six. They, like in The Thirteen Guests, are well constructed, diligently thought through, and pure delights for the cricket fan.

One such dwells on the same theme of how murder stimulates business, garnished with satirical social commentary. It tells us of a newspaper-boy hawking his ware in the aftermath of the second ‘Z-murder’.

“It was a memorable occasion for the paper-boy. Two murders in one day. You didn’t often have such luck. Test matches and Cup-Ties got one sort of people. Robbed actresses and divorces got another. By-elections got another. But murders got everybody, from top-hats downwards, and a couple of murders inside twenty-four hours was almost more than a starved little soul could stand. There is a limit for our capacity to register pure joy.”

However, the other two references to cricket are even more fascinating for the true cricket aficionado.

After Richard Temperley, the hero, provides his statement to the police after the first murder, he asks Inspector James whether he could leave. Given that the young man had just arrived in London, the inspector grants permission with the following words, “Well — enjoy yourself at Madame Tussaud’s, and give my love to WG Grace.”

Any cricket lover dabbling in detective fiction is bound to become a Farjeon fan simply because of this line.

But, there is another which follows later in the book, which underlines that Farjeon knew his game inside out.

Temperley was at a loss, trying to shake off the constable following him, and attempting to make sense of the sinister murders and an enigmatic young woman mixed up in it. He is frustrated at his predicament. Here is how his thoughts pan out:

“Richard was not especially fitted for this sort of thing … this was his first personal introduction into the complexities of crime and the subtleties of the police force. ‘Put me against a demon bowler,’ he reflected, ‘or stick me on a tennis court, and all’s serene. But Scotland Yard and Bill Sykes don’t see me at my best.’”

Need I say more? Allusions to both Grace and the Demon Bowler. The Father of Cricket and Fred Spofforth. How many mystery thrillers can boast such distinction?

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)