How’s your Tuesday going? Only five more sleeps till Christmas Day!
I’m concluding my round of Christmas-themed British Library Crime Classics with Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder. A classic country house murder mystery packed full of characters, suspicions, clues and Christmas crackers!
Remember what I said about how murder mysteries are more about character exploration than about the actual police procedural? Well, this one was definitely all about the characters! It’s characters with pure vengeance, up to the point where even I was getting confused about who’s who. So many characters!
It’s Christmastime and the Melbury family have gathered at Flaxmere, the country residence of Sir Osmond Melbury, your typical tyrannical patriarch who holds all the purse strings. There’s Hilda, the eldest daughter, who married against her father’s wishes and in consequence never saw a single red cent from Sir Osmond, Carol, her smart and charming daughter who longs to be an architect but can’t afford the training, Edith and Eleanor who both made respectable matches, only now the cracks are beginning to show and Sir Osmond isn’t happy about that either, George who also made a good marriage but is a bit of a gambler, Aunt Mildred (who is Sir Osmond’s sister and a classic elderly spinster), and Jennifer, the youngest of the family. The spouses and children of Eleanor, Edith and George are also in tow (all of whom have their own idiosyncrasies which I won’t enumerate or this review will get way too long), plus Philip Cheriton whom Jennifer is secretly engaged to but Sir Osmond disapproves of, Oliver Witcombe, Sir Osmond’s preferred suitor for Jennifer, and to round out the party, Miss Grace Portisham, Sir Osmond’s secretary, a young woman whom the rest of the family are worried he’s getting a tad bit too fond of.
Whew! I told you there were a lot of characters! And that’s not even counting the servants, present and former!
The first several chapters are about the lead-up to the murder of Sir Osmond in the study on Christmas Day and gives us an overall view of how things stand with the Melbury family – basically the usual hopes and dreams, loves and fears of the lot of them. These first few chapters can be a little confusing as they are told from the viewpoint of several different characters and everyone refers to each other by a variety of nicknames/titles/last names. Edith in particular mixed me up because she’s referred to as Edith, Dittie and Lady Evershot! With such a big cast of characters, plus the kids and everything, it would have really helped to have a family tree to refer to! But once the murder occurs, the story is then told mainly from the viewpoint of Colonel Halstock, the chief constable called in to investigate the crime. After that, it’s pretty much smooth sailing and you soon get acquainted with all the characters – and also pretty emotionally invested in a number of them!
(Side note: To all my Agatha Christie fans out there, Colonel Halstock kind of feels like Colonel Melchett from St Mary Mead – the fatherly chief policeman who’s also a friend of the rich gentry in the neighbourhood. In the case of Melchett it was the Bantrys, for Halstock it’s the Melburys. And in both cases, I find myself wondering, “All well and good, but really when there’s such close friendships, wouldn’t the colonels in both cases be forced to excuse themselves due to potential bias?” Maybe back in those days it wasn’t such a big thing as it would be now!)
But back to The Santa Klaus Murder. This is a story that has everything a murder mystery fan is looking for – a country house with murder, lots of money involved, suspicion on every character, love, thwarted love, motives aplenty, a confusion of wills, enough backstory and character development to make me a happy girl, misdirection aplenty as people try to cover for others or try to hide what they were actually doing from the police, and new clues popping up every which way.
Of all the British Crime Classics I’ve read so far, this is the one that has come the closest to matching the high standard set by my beloved Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. High praise indeed! I have a feeling that The Santa Klaus Murder is definitely one book I will be coming back to often to re-read.
Finally, to finish off, a few spoiler notes below – if you haven’t read the book, don’t read on!
Let’s talk about the couples in the story.
I was inclined to pick Jennifer and Philip as my favourite characters at the start, mainly because we begin the book off Philip’s viewpoint and I originally thought they would be the main protagonists/love story. However, after a while, Jennifer and Philip kind of slip into the background (and also later descriptions of Philip from other characters don’t exactly paint as favourable picture of him as it did in the beginning!), and the couple that takes center stage is Edith and Kenneth. I have to admit, this was the love story that tugged at my heartstrings. I definitely have mixed feelings about the way their romance turns out! David didn’t end up being such a bad character either and I could kind of understand why Edith decided to stay with him, but at the same time… I have to admit I was hoping a little that David might be killed off in a second murder, leaving the way clear for Edith and Kenneth. Never mind all this stuff about character building for Edith, I want her and Kenneth to live happily ever after!
Also, am I the only one who was hoping Carol and Oliver would hit it off? The story began to hint at this a little, but then took a change. I felt kind of bad for Oliver because everyone seemed to take such a dislike to him and I was hoping Mavis Doriel Hay would later reveal him as a guy who isn’t all that bad and a perfect match for Carol! Instead Oliver turns out to be a bit of an ass which I was disappointed about, but I guess it’s all for the better as Carol can now get on with her architectural training…
Finally, Grace Portisham. I feel really bad for Grace. The entire Melbury family were suspicious of her and disliked her, but when you finally come to read her point of view, you find that she wasn’t actually that bad a person. (As it turns out, Jennifer, who was the only one who actually lived with Grace, was the only Melbury who was right about Grace, insisting that Grace had no such designs on Sir Osmond as the rest of the family thought she did). In fact, Grace seemed like a real decent sort and was one of the few who were really sorry about Sir Osmond’s death. She was just a girl trying to do her job – and in the end she probably had it the worst of the lot. She lost out in the will (or at least she didn’t get as big a cut as she might have), she lost her job and her fiancé turned out to be a money-grabbing murderer. I wished Mavis Doriel Hay could have told us what happened to Grace in the future – I find myself hoping she at least ended up having a nice well-paid post somewhere else, without a bunch of jealous family members breathing down her neck.