‘No one could have foretold how it was going to end. Not even the murderer.’
Source: Review Copy
Over the years I have read books which have started with prefaces, introductions and forewords but I think this is the first which has started with a ‘Preview,’ and its’ cinematic connotations are followed through in the camera shot-like descriptions of the setting. Despite it being a Christmas card scene, set on Christmas Eve we know something bad is about to happen. A woman screams. Father Christmas is dead underneath the Christmas tree…
The narrative then retreats to the day before where we are introduced to a country house party. The party is at Benedict Grame’s house, who is presented as a devotee of all things Christmas, including dressing up as Father Christmas to put presents under the tree for his guests. The party include his reclusive sister, Charlotte, his eccentric practical joker of a friend, Gerald, Nicholas Blaise the ear wigging secretary, Denys Arden and Roger Wynton who are madly in love but are thwarted by Denys’ guardian Jeremy Rainer, Rosalind Marsh, whose coolness matches her sculptures, Austin Delamere, who is a politician with a possibly shady past, Mrs Lucia Tristam who seems to have set her cap at both Rainer and Grame, a married couple called the Napiers, Professor Lorring whose attitude to Christmas would fit ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’s’ and finally Mordecai Tremaine.
Despite being set up and introduced as an ordinary and uneventful person, Mordecai Tremaine is the amateur sleuth of the text or as a friend of his would say a ‘murder magnet’ and atmospherically he reminded me of Cyril Hare’s Francis Pettigrew. His curiosity is piqued even before arriving at Grame’s house since at the bottom of his invite is a postscript foretelling doom for Grame and begs for Tremaine’s help. Needless to say Tremaine is eager to take up so vague a case as ‘he was running into adventure. Somewhere ahead of him a problem was waiting for him…’ Moreover, it has been a while since he had been involved in a real case so ‘his appetite for detection had been compelled to feed upon literature and he had forgotten the sordid background of hate, fear and jealousy. He had forgotten that the end of the pursuit was sick disillusionment and the destruction of a human creature. He was conscious only of the excitement of the chase and the keenness of testing his brain against the cunning of a murderer.’
The structure of the novel reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s ventures into detective fiction in that the story starts by building up to the death, accumulating small curious incidences. Why did Charlotte deny being in a tea shop? Who was the scary man Tremaine encountered on his way to the house? What is in Gerald’s packages? Why is Rainer acting out of character and becoming increasingly withdrawn? The novel also shares with Heyer the trope of the young couple in love. However, I think the central amateur sleuth and the writing style of the book differs from Heyer’s works.
Of course events eventually do catch up with those mentioned in the preview, though now with further surprising and shocking details, combined with further small events which cast the net of suspicion over many characters. Why was Charlotte fully dressed? How did Wynton arrive at the house so quickly, since he wasn’t staying there that night? Who was the Father Christmas who entered the house earlier on? Who took all the presents? Superintendent Connack who takes charge of the case is aware of Tremaine’s reputation and therefore allows him to help unofficially. The rest of the novel mostly tracks Tremaine’s investigation and inquiries and I found it interesting the way they were described. For example the image of the detective locked into some sort primeval hunter/ prey struggle is mooted, along with Tremaine regarding the investigation in theatrical terms wondering how many acts there will be. In addition, his methods of remembering a crime scene or a sea of people’s faces is depicted in photographic terms and overall I felt the writing style of this book was aiming to be more literary (if that is the correct word). The sentence syntax and language did remind me a bit of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) in that the position and choice of words at times did feel consciously considered and chosen. The effect of this is generally favourable, especially when commenting on characters, however, it was a bit overdone at points in regards to describing settings.
The solution to the case is quite complicated and did come as a surprise, though I am not entirely sure if that is surprise in a good way or a bad way. Were the character revelations/ reversals good in that you the reader were completely fooled about them or were these surprises unprepared for? To be honest I’m still in a quandary about it and can’t decide whether I liked it or not. Moving from one subjective area to another, my main issue with the book was pacing. Due to it leaning towards the Heyer structure the pace is slow for the most part, with Tremaine’s case seeming like a wild goose catch until the body turns up. But then at random moments the pace speeds up again especially near the end, but in my opinion it was too much as I felt at one point I was being overloaded with extra information about the suspects, rather than finding these details out more gradually through interviews with the detective. Moreover, this information felt like it had been given too late for to me to do anything with it, as Tremaine’s solution promptly follows. I much preferred this book in comparison to C. H. B. Kitchin’s Crime at Christmas, as the writing style is much stronger and the plot more engaging, so I think the only thing you need to consider before buying this book is what sort of pace you prefer.