I actually read this a little while ago, delighted to find an unknown-to-me Golden Age mystery writer. Now, having read and moderately enjoyed it a second time thanks to Netgalley, I don’t know whether it’s my fault or the book’s that I honestly can’t remember whodunnit…. It could just be my brain. I do have the memory of a goldfish.
The murder of a crotchety patriarch on Christmas Day, when the entire family is gathered as well as a few extras, leads to an interesting investigation. It’s a country house murder with a Yuletide twist. In the classic approved style, everyone – Sir Osmond Melbury’s children, in-laws, sister, and guests – has at least some motive to kill him, and equally strong reasons why they would not, and alibis flex and stretch and snap. And one thing that drove me a little crazy about the investigation – though I suppose things were handled very different in the 30’s – was that it seemed to take days for anyone to get around to questioning the children in the house. It just seemed nonsensical that the police stalled out over who distributed the Christmas crackers to the children – and yet no one seemed to ever ask said children about it. It never seemed to occur to anyone.
The investigation on the whole was (I hope!) far from realistic. It took, again, days for the police to search the grounds and outbuildings, and when they did it was a half-as- -er -baked job of it. And while it’s normal in any mystery novel (or tv show or film) for people to neglect or outright refuse to tell the police certain things, here it was taken to a kind of silly level.
“When you sent for me yesterday afternoon,” Caundle explained; “I came up here through the village and by the back drive—much quicker for me than going round by the main gate—and just before I turned into the drive a car came out of it, turned into the road and passed me. Now that’s a bit odd?” I inquired why the dickens he didn’t tell me yesterday. “It didn’t strike me at the moment as odd”.
A car leaving the estate immediately after a man was shot? And you didn’t think it was odd? Really?
And part of the investigative technique in this – put in motion by a layman, to whom I’ll come back – was to have several of the people who were on the scene write up part of their point of view on what happened. This is how the book begins, though then it settles into just one first-person angle. The thinking behind having people write a report is “they would be partly off their guard when they sat down to write” … but … that makes no sense. In a real live interview, an interrogator can surprise a witness, spark memories, pull out unintentional confession and whatnot. But for someone to sit down with a pen or a typewriter and put down in print their take on a situation – well, they’re going to be editing themselves. The recipient of the report will never see the “oops, didn’t mean to say that” and “wait, that gives away more than I wanted” first drafts crumpled up in people’s waste baskets or crumbling to ash in their fireplaces.
Meanwhile, a layman inserts himself into the investigation in a manner which I would think would ping the radar of modern investigators. “Now I want you to ask Miss Melbury and Miss Portisham to do the same for Tuesday and Christmas Day. I don’t know them well enough to ask them and I don’t want to approach them as your emissary.” Is there anything else you’d like? “By persisting in the assumption that you’re agreeing with everything he suggests, he hypnotises you into doing so. That’s the only way I can explain why I trusted him as I did in this case, although I met him with a feeling of suspicion which I didn’t shake off for a long time.” Wait, Sir Osmond received a letter on Christmas morning? Why did no one mention this to the police? Oh – didn’t think it was important. Well, like a car driving away from the scene of the crime, why would it be?
I wanted to like the characters, but there wasn’t a whole lot to them, and for some – like the youngest daughter – what there was could be rather annoying. Actually, I kept mixing up Sir Osmond’s youngest daughter with his oldest granddaughter. There sometimes wasn’t much to choose between them. One of the other daughters was married to a man suffering from shell shock, who took advantage of the holiday to reconnect with an old beau. She is lauded at one point for standing by her erratic husband: it “was really a very honourable determination to stand by her husband and give him what help she could” … it was not, however, quite so hono(u)rable for her to keep leading the old flame on and on. Not pretty.
There was a somewhat annoying red herring, an obnoxious precocious child (who finally was questioned), a pair of Santas, and lots of forgetfulness and covering up before it’s all concluded. And no, I still can’t remember how it ended…