Monday, 17 January 2011

Penguin no. 209: No. 17
by J.Jefferson Farjeon

"Fog had London by the throat. It blinded its eyes and muffled its ears. Such traffic as was not at a standstill groped its way with scarcely a sound through the jaundiced streets, and to cross a road was no longer a casual matter, but an adventure into the unknown. For this reason, the timid stayed indoors, while the more daring, and those who had no choice, groped gingerly along the pavements. The pickpockets were busy."
Despite its poor condition, an early Penguin with a green spine and an author I've never heard of is exactly the thing to attract my attention. Why is it that this author, clearly successful having penned 40 novels, is now forgotten, while others retain their fame into modern times? And the opening paragraph quoted above is certainly inviting. In fact, just tell me that the setting is London and I'll probably read on.

But I regretted my choice almost immediately. The "about the author" section was clearly self written and contained a series of hearty comments like "takes a cold tub every morning", which is never a good sign, and the foreword revealed that the book was a work based on a successful play. This I inferred from the text almost immediately anyway, because it carried all the signs: the action was confined to two rooms in a house, there was no character with an "inner life", the dialogue was clearly designed to entertain, and the plot was ludicrous.

The plot centres on the character Ben, an out of work mariner, currently tramping through London, and evocative of the type of person described in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and Jack London's The People of the Abyss. He takes shelter in a vacant house, comes across what he believes to be a corpse, and rushes out of the house, stumbling into the arms of Gilbert Fordyce. Fordyce insists that Ben accompany him back into the house to investigate the mystery of the corpse. Ben is cowardly and reluctant, but nonetheless it's obvious that Ben will be the hero of the piece, Fordyce will come to admire him, and all will turn out well.

This much I could bear. The problem I had with the book is that much of the attempted humour is based around Fordyce ridiculing and abusing Ben. It is clear that we are meant to like Ben, but we are meant to identify with Fordyce, who is presented as brave and stoic and upstanding. But he is also given to mocking those not as upstanding as himself, and also given to mocking another character who stutters. This I found unbearable.

Intriguingly, I knew the character Ben. His cowardly and snivelling nature, his humorous comments, his misused words, his oaths and his entire manner of speech were recognisable as Lonely from the late 1960's television show Callan. And of course Edward Woodward, as Callan, used to abuse Lonely in much the same way that Fordyce abuses Ben, while caring about him and remaining loyal. The two characters are remarkably similar, and yet they were conceived forty years apart.


  1. Characterising London through its fog might also have been a clue. It is such a very stereotypical thing to do and after Dickens superb opening to 'Bleak House' anyone else is on a hiding to nothing!

    Is this Farjeon any relation to Eleanor Farjeon, do you know? And there was a farjeon around this time who was a theatre critic as well. All one family, perhaps?

  2. Hmm... don't think I'll be tracking this one down. I loved your description of it, though!

  3. Annie, yes, Jefferson Farjeon was the brother of Eleanor and Herbet. He had a thirty-year career as a mystery thriller writer.

    Ben featured in eight of Farjeon's books and I think is a rather remarkable instance for the period of a lower class mystery genre lead character. He was included in H. R. F. Keating's Disappearing Detectives series for the Collins Crime Club in 1986.

  4. Here's a link for more.

  5. I have a first edition here of a book he wrote called 'The House Over the Tunnel' it is quite scarce. It is a HB Collins Crime Club 1951. His sister's children's books are more sought after by collectors.

    Re the Penguins did you ever meet of hear of Mr Jagger who collected Penguins for many years? I met him as he came out to NZ to see his daughter.
    It was his obsession or hobby, mine is not crime but just interesting books in general but mainly literature, poetry, but other subjects. Penguins are good though. And Pelicans.

  6. Yes, the start to Bleak House! I often re-read that. I think it influenced T S Eliot's 'The yellow fog that rubbed it's muzzle on the window pane...' in 'Prufrock'



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