“The Z Murders” by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

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“Places, like people, have varying moods, and the moods of London are legion.”

As first lines go, that’s one of the best I’ve ever read. The opening paragraph describing the many moods of Britain’s capital should alone have given J. Jefferson Farjeon a place at the table of the great crime writers of the 20th century. And yet, odds are you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t. He somehow slipped from the public consciousness despite writing over sixty novels that were, in his lifetime, highly regarded. Fans included the famously tough critic Dorothy L. Sayers, and it seems remarkable that someone so prolific could now be forgotten. Still, thanks once again to the British Library who are continuing to rediscover forgotten gems from the Golden  Age of Detective Fiction, and have brought to us here one of the alphabetically-last novels in the library. Ladies and gentlemen, The Z Murders.

We open in London, with a train pulling into Euston station at five o’clock in the morning. On it is Richard Temperley, come to London to visit his sister, and having had a disagreeable journey sat next to a loud snorer. Arriving in the city far too early to arrive at his sister’s house, he goes to a hotel over the road where he can sleep in the lounge until the dawn fully breaks. Unfortunately, the snorer comes too and is soon seen slumped in a nearby chair. But he’s not snoring anymore – he’s dead.

Shocked, Temperley examines the body and it becomes apparent he’s been shot. Is the incident at all related to the pretty but tense young woman who fled from the lounge mere minutes before the body was discovered? After the police have investigated, Temperley notices the woman’s purse forgotten in one of the chairs. He decides not to inform the police of his findings, and instead seeks the woman out. The police, however, are not stupid, and everyone is soon embarking on a game of cat and mouse that will take them all over the country, by train and taxi, on the hunt for a serial killer with a mysterious motive.

For some reason I keep being surprised when books of this age are funny, like I forgot it was possible that our ancestors had a sense of humour. The book is heavy in silly moments and smart quips, and the heroes are easily likeable. Richard Temperley is a bit gung-ho but is the sort of chivalrous chap who won’t think twice about crossing the country to help a woman in need. The woman in question, Sylvia Wynne, is secretive and you can’t be sure, really, how involved she is in everything. The policeman in charge of the case, Inspector James, is also a great character, and reminded me of Christie’s Inspector Japp, but there’s a suggestion that it’s actually his colleague Dutton who really knows what’s what.

Ted Diggs, the taxi driver who gets lumbered with driving Richard and Sylvia around the country is also great fun, and deeply fleshed out, perhaps slightly more so than even the main characters. Much of the humour comes from the difference in class between characters like Richard and Ted, which is common to novels of the time. In fact, it really is the characters that make this story. The plot is fine, but hangs a bit loose for me, and it’s a tiny bit farcical. Also, several details of it are never quite fully explained, but the resolution is satisfying enough.

The British Library also published Murder in White by Farjeon which was an unexpected success, so I daresay I’ll be returning to him at some point. After all, sixty to get through? Sounds like a challenge to me.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Buddy Holly Is Alive And Well On Ganymede” by Bradley Denton (1991)

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On the other hand, Elvis is dead.

On the other hand, Elvis is dead.

“I was conceived in cold circumstances in the front seat of a 1955 four-door Chevrolet in the early morning of Tuesday, February 3, 1959, near Des Moines, Iowa.”

Few titles in the world’s libraries can compare to the wonderful and weird Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. I was so excited by the title that I kept having to tell people what I was reading, only to then find I had to explain who Buddy Holly was, what Ganymede is, or both. For those who don’t know (and, really, you should), Buddy Holly was one of the pioneers of rock and roll from the 1950s who tragically died in a plane crash when he was only 22, and Ganymede is one of the moons of Jupiter. Ready now? Then we’ll begin.

Oliver Vale is a college drop out with a job at an electronics store and little going for him. He spends his days watching television and reading his mother’s diaries, the only thing that connects them as she’s been dead for five years. One night, the thirtieth anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, Oliver is banging at his satellite dish to get a decent picture on the television, when the broadcast is interrupted by footage of Buddy Holly stood on a bleak and desolate landscape.

Buddy Holly begins talking out to the screen, saying he doesn’t know how he got there, but he’s doing fine. He reads out a name and address and asks that someone can contact the person in question for assistance. Trouble is, it’s Oliver’s name and address. And when his neighbours bang on the front door, it turns out that every single television in the world is playing the exact same message. Oliver has immediately become the most famous man in the world, and that’s not a pleasant experience.

Deciding that the answers may lie in Lubbock, Texas, the town where Buddy’s body was laid to rest, Oliver drags out his motorcycle, Peggy Sue, and sets off into the darkness. However, his journey is going to be difficult as he’s being sought by his psychologist, his extraterrestrial neighbours, a creepy member of the Authorities with Inspector Javert levels of determination, a Christian evangelist, a cybernetic Doberman and an old friend of his uncle’s, all of whom are determined to find him and save him before the population at large kill him for taking away their television programmes. All the while, Buddy Holly continues to sing…

One of my friends asked before I’d finished if it was any good and I have only one way to explain it: if Douglas Adams had been American, this is the book he would have written. I think that’s a fairly expressive assessment and gives you some idea of what to expect. It’s as surreal and weird as his work, but it isn’t quite as funny, choosing instead to mythologise modern history, as I think America is wont to do. Buddy Holly was a very talented musician, but here he’s considered a god.

I don’t have much interest in music, so when people do take it as seriously as some do here, it seems odd to me. Half of the story is about Oliver growing up with his mother, and how with the death of every musician over her lifetime (Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, etc), she becomes slightly more detatched from the real world, believing that ancient aliens were taking the talented back home, and that one day she would be reunited with them. She’s nonetheless sympathetic, and it’s clear that Oliver has a lot of affection for her and misses her, despite her oddities.

The point of view switches between Oliver (even there alternating between the present and the past) and pretty much all of those who are tailing him. It’s quite an interesting road movie of a novel, with him on the run and the other characters crossing paths to get to him first, occasionally joining forces, arguing among each other and even stealing each other’s vehicles. Through the main characters we find out what has happened to the rest of the world, and it’s not good. With nothing on television, the world’s population goes mad, fighting and killing in the streets for cinema tickets so they can watch something different, or following a televangelist who believes that Oliver is the Antichrist. It’s a sad comment on humanity that it takes just a few days for us to descend into anarchy, although it’s horribly believable.

It’s a good book, all told, seemingly born of the same kind of mind as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but unfortunately not as witty or sharp. Nevertheless, it holds together well, reads quickly and is balanced with the right levels of action and downtime, leading to an enormous showdown at the end when everyone finally converges on the same spot to bring about the novel’s conclusion. It’s also a nice love letter to Buddy Holly, a man of great talent who changed music forever, first by being there, and then by not.