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The Ben the Tramp Novels of J Jefferson Farjeon

I took plenty of books on holiday with me this summer and enjoyed them all. Even so, I couldn’t resist looking at the small library at the property we stayed in, which consisted of books that previous guests had left behind. You could see why they hadn’t bothered to pack them: most were tired, tattered paperbacks representing an unappealing mix of romance, thrillers, and historical fiction along bodice-ripping lines. But four of the books caught my attention, partly because they were in quite good condition; partly because they were by J Jefferson Farjeon, one of the writers of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction; and mainly because I was intrigued by the protagonist, Ben the Tramp. I read No. 17, Murderer’s Trail, Ben on the Job and Ben Sees it Through.

 

The first Ben the Tramp novel, originally a stage play.
 

Ben really is a tramp. He’s not Sherlock Holmes in disguise, and he’s not a toff slumming it. He’s a full-blown, hungry, homeless destitute in ragged clothes, who sleeps rough, and can’t remember when he last took a bath. He couldn’t be further from Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L Sayers’s aristocratic detective. Unlike Wimsey with his string of names and titles, Ben doesn’t even have a surname. There was no Eton and Oxford for Ben: he’s ill-educated, and he’s not very bright either. He doesn’t befriend police officers, and his usual reaction when he sees a copper is to run. Nor does he solve crimes so much as stumble into them, usually by the chance discovery of a corpse.

He's cowardly, yet oddly courageous too; despite his fears he will go into those dark cellars or cross dangerous men. He’s also dogged, and chivalrous. What Ben won’t do to protect a girl he admires is nobody’s business. He faces death – someone is always trying to kill him – with grim humour. He has his own moral code – thieving and harming others are not part of it. He doesn’t have a great deal of respect for his so-called betters, and is liable to deal with attempts to patronise or belittle him with hilarious back-chat.

What a brilliant and unusual detective! I’d say he was a breath of fresh air, but the lack of baths makes me think twice.

The books have many strong points, aside from Ben himself. They’re funny and well-written, and they’re deliciously crammed with international gangs, pickpockets, mysterious strangers, women who aren’t as good as they should be, stowaways, drunks and general ne’er-do-wells. One of the best features of the books is the atmospheric settings. Ben’s adventures take place in cellars, a London enveloped in dense fog, the coal hole on a ship, a hut on a Spanish mountain.

Joseph Jefferson Farjeon was born in Hampstead in 1883 and educated at Peterborough Lodge, a private school in Hampstead. His father, Benjamin, was a novelist and playwright in the Wilkie Collins style. His mother was Margaret Jane Jefferson (1853-1935), whose father Joseph Jefferson was an American actor. His sister, Eleanor (1881-1965), wrote children’s stories: I had a book of stories written by her –  Eleanor Farjeon’s Book: Stories, Verses, Plays edited by Eleanor Graham – and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. I loved the stories and the pictures, and I loved the name Ardizzone. Their brother Herbert (1887-1945) was an actor, playwright, theatre critic and stage manager. Herbert also edited the Shakespeare Journal and various editions of Shakespeare’s work.

Joseph Jefferson Farjeon married Frances Antoinette Wood in 1910. From 1910 to 1920 he worked as an editor for Amalgamated Press. He was a prolific novelist and playwright. He wrote over eighty novels, and contributed to the Evening Standard and the Evening News. He wrote in Punch as ‘Smith Minor’; apparently one of his Australian readers sent Smith a cake every Christmas. He wrote comedy and crime drama, and it was on the stage that Ben the Tramp made his first appearance in Farjeon’s 1925 play Number 17. This was adapted as the first Ben the Tramp Novel, published in 1926. Number 17 was also made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. In later life Farjeon lived in Ditchling, Sussex. Frances Joseph Jefferson died in 1950. Joseph Jefferson Farjeon died in a nursing home in Hove, Sussex in 1955. His daughter, Joan, a scenic artist, survived him.

Farjeon’s Ben the Tramp novels were bestsellers in the 1930s. They’ve now been reissued by the Collins Crime Club, and I shouldn’t be surprised if they are best sellers again. I’m certainly planning to read some more, and look out for other books by J Jefferson Farjeon.

 

 

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