‘It was to be no ordinary Christmas. It was to be a ghastly Christmas, every moment of it seeming an age and requiring tact, presence of mind and unselfishness to carry it through.’
Perhaps it is a little too early to be reading a festive themed mystery but I have been keen to read one of Kitchin’s novels for a while, so hopefully that will mitigate the fact that I am precariously close to falling into the same category as shops which sell Christmas cards and Advent Calendars in September.
Crime at Christmas (1934) starts on Christmas Eve with Malcolm Warren, a stock broker and our story’s narrator contacting one of his client’s Mr Axel Quisberg over share buying and to also confirm his invitation to spend Christmas at Quisberg’s home. Warren is looking forward to the stay as he is good friends with Quisberg’s wife, though one feels part of his enjoyment in her company is derived from the superiority he feels in regards to her tastes and knowledge of aesthetics. Mr Quisberg won’t be there that evening but there will be plenty of others:
- Clarence James, Mrs Quisberg’s eldest son from her first marriage. He is a bohemian type and sees himself as part of the Bloomsbury set.
- Amabel Thurston, Mrs Quisberg’s eldest daughter from her second marriage. She is a young artificially beautiful woman, who enjoys being socially inappropriate and is half engaged to;
- Leonard Dixon, who is an ex tea planter who gives Malcolm Warren an inferiority complex: ‘How did he manage to make me feel so like a rat beside a stallion?’
- Sheila Thurston, is Amabel’s younger sister.
- Richard, who again is another Thurston sibling but is currently spending Christmas in Switzerland (and from what happens in the book that was probably a very smart move).
- Cyril, the youngest Thurston offspring, who is staying at home recovering from appendicitis and is being cared for by a Nurse.
- Doctor Green, is also staying for Christmas and is an old friend of Axel’s and before leaving for another engagement is noticed by Warren having a private word with Axel.
- Harley is Axel’s secretary and due to her ill health (anxiety, twitching and sleep walking), his mother is also staying for the Christmas period.
The Christmas celebrations begin with a bang or rather a fall as Warren manages to fall over badly in a game of musical chairs. But more is to come as on the following morning, Christmas Day, Warren discovers Mrs Harley dead on his balcony, her neck broken. As the world’s most unlikely victim, this event is treated as an accident, a tragic consequence of sleep walking. However, it does impact many members of the household (and in fact a significant amount of the novel focuses on this and Warren only picks up the vaguest of clues at this time; a firework paper, a love poem). Heartlessness on the side of Sheila and Amabel provokes argument which culminates in suggestion that Mrs Quisberg cannot simply say ‘Harley, your mother’s dead!’ It’s just very awkward that Harley and Mr Quisberg return at that point and this blunt delivery of the news causes understandable signs of grief in Harley, but also a near collapse by Mr Quisberg, which is not so understandable.
Further small incidences occur such as a love struck nurse, news that Mr Quisberg has yet to consent to Amabel’s engagement, an absent Clarence, but more importantly a mysterious and ominous visitor requesting an interview with Mr Quisberg and the reader is privy to only one scrap of that conversation: ‘Why, in that light, I saw it plain as I can see you!’ Structurally, this novel is not quite like your conventional detective novel as although early on a body has appeared, the M word, that every reader is waiting for has not been mentioned. In fact the focus seems to be on the remaining guests and the dynamics between them. But just when you think nothing dramatic will ever happen, another body appears and this is where the mystery begins in full flow, with Detective Inspector Parris leading the case. There are many aspects to this second death to intrigue the reader with a mysterious flute player on the heath and that staple element of detective fiction, the suspicious acting guests who all have secrets to hide and possible reasons for wanting the second victim dead. Oh and there’s a freshly dug hole nearby the body.
To be honest I didn’t really get on with Detective Inspector Parris, with his far too chummy attitude to Warren (who having discovered both bodies must be pretty suspicious), his rather snobbish attitude towards provincial police and his tendency to be awfully long winded in that oh so light hearted breezy tone. The only interesting point was that he was a theological student before becoming a policeman, which reminded me of the TV character, Sergeant Hathaway, who is in the ITV TV series Lewis and had the same back story. Of course the earlier death of Harley’s mother is also returned to, but is there any connection? Was Mrs Harley’s death just an accident or murder? Is there more than one killer loose within the Quisberg’s household? Part of the solution is derived through Warren having a Proust Madeleine moment, with an involuntary memory bringing to light a past indiscretion which illuminates the current tragedies. Although plausible it did seems a bit too coincidental and rather handing the reader an awful lot of the solution in one go, although Kitchin does provide some twists and surprises later on, showing that answer to the crime is not so straight forward. The revelation scene also ends with a dramatic flourish.
On the characterisation front, kitchin does show some skill, providing a much more complex and less biasedly stereotypical image of stock brokers and financial men, which contrasts perhaps with other Golden Age writers such as Agatha Christie. Warren on the whole is a good choice for a narrator, as his approach to the various events corresponds with the readers’ and Kitchin does illustrate some aptitude for creating comic characters such as a journalist who has a brief appearance in the novel. Stylistically though I feel Kitchin’s pace can be a little slow at times due to Warren’s love of describing the Quisberg’s home (making some paragraphs reminiscent of Changing Rooms). Kitchin does try to experiment with his narrative voice at the end of the book with the final chapter being a Q & A between the reader and Warren. In a novel by Alan Melville I think this would have been more appropriate and probably worked better as although it can be quite funny (which clashes with the straight narrative style preceding it), I think it jars with the pace of the novel and ruins the tone/mood built up by the bombshell the previous chapter ended with. Kitchin does try to include some thoughts on the detective novel as a form:
‘I would say that the excuse for a detective story is two-fold. First, it presents a problem to be solved and shares, in a humble way, the charm of the acrostic and the crossword puzzle. But secondly – and this, to my mind, is its real justification – it provides one with a narrow but intensive view of ordinary life, the steady flow of which is felt more keenly through the very violence of its interruption.’
But again, as nice as they are, they don’t really fit with the novel and they seemed a bit incongruous and to be honest I felt Warren’s reaction to the solution would have been more emotionally based, considering his heart felt ponderings during the rest of the story.
Rating: 3-3.5/5 (On the whole this story did have a good mystery at the heart of it and Kitchin did write the house guest murder mystery milieu well. But I think stylistically it was a little weak at points. However, I am not completely dissuaded from trying another of his stories and I am tempted to read some of his earlier works.)