Picture the series 24 as a 1930s BBC radio drama; proceedings kick off as a chap in evening dress plummily intones: ‘the following events take place between…’
That’s The Z Murders– kind of. When Richard Temperley arrives back in London after a train journey spent in the company of a disagreeable man who snores the whole way, he finds himself at a loose end. Heading to the lounge of a nearby hotel, Temperley nods off and wakes to find the man he’d travelled down with dead in a nearby chair, a small metal ‘Z’ left on the body, and a young woman hurrying from the scene. Overwhelmed by the need to clear the girl of any involvement in the man’s death (any excuse, eh?), Temperley is soon embroiled in a cross-country chase to track down the real killer, as more bodies- and more small metal Z’s- punctuate the landscape.
The Z Murders takes place over the course of 36 hours but has the kind of dashing about that Jack Bauer would find familiar. Some of the logic is a little shaky: you must really fancy someone you’ve only just met if you’re immediately trying to prove they didn’t commit a murder where you’re the only other suspect. Some of it is downright insulting: Temperley becomes suspicious of a ‘countryman’ who mentions the Battle of Crecy, because it’s an intelligent reference and he isn’t from London. Imagine. Soon, people from Bristol to Boston are being patronised for not coming from the metropolis, making this a kind of 1930s Location, Location, Location…
Parochial attitudes aside, The Z Murders is hugely enjoyable. J Jefferson Fargeon heads away from the drawing rooms- away, mainly, from rooms altogether- and gives us a ‘golden age’ crime road movie- even close comparator Rogue Male stays fairly static. Fargeon also presents a prototype Bond villain in ‘Z’, a disfigured man with a hook at the end of one arm and a ‘silent killer’ projectile weapon at the other. ‘Z’ is revenging himself on some former associates who left him for dead and stole some precious stones from him, one of whom was the grandfather of Sylvia Wynne, the woman Temperley is protecting. His cottage forms the last point of the ‘letter Z’ the villain has been ‘drawing’ across the country and is the venue for the final confrontation. ‘Z’ is killed and Temperley gets the girl, beggaring the question: what if he hadn’t fancied her?
J Jefferson Fargeon has become a poster boy for posthumous literary fame. His Mystery in White was a massive hit when the British Library launched their Crime Classics line. It’s easy to see why: he combines pace and action with dry humour and an occasionally poetic turn of phrase. Even his minor characters are well observed, especially the ill-fated Albert Bowes. In his day, Fargeon was feted by Dorothy L Sayers and adapted by Hitchcock: if this rather than Number Seventeen had been made into a film, he might be deservedly better known.