I have been aware of Constance and Gwenyth Little for quite a while, but this has been my first opportunity to actually read one of their books. As an extra incentive despite the rather bland title, this novel is also set at Christmas (feel free to suggest a better title in the comments below).
The story is told from Leigh Smith’s perspective, who is regretting having taken on the job of being Mabel Ballinger’s companion, due to the inhospitable old house she lives in, the meagre wages and the fact she is doing far too much house work in her opinion. Mabel and Dickens’ Scrooge would have got on well together, as she is incredibly stingy over money, which is never good when you have a house full of guests coming, including Mabel’s nephews and nieces, John, Berg, Freda and Amy and Rhynda, John’s wife. Even worse for our story’s Scrooge is that her guests are bringing, well… extra guests; Richard Jones, Rosalie Hannahs and Donald Tait. Prior to their arrival, late at night, a dragging noise is heard in the attic. Mabel says it is one of her relatives’ ghosts dragging themselves across the floor (as this relation before dying had broken their leg up there) and when that happens it means a Ballinger will have an accident. Added to the superstition is the fact that once the said Ballinger is dead they will then walk to a different resting place.
Understandably Leigh is a bit freaked out, but this soon disappears as the Christmas party gets into full swing, even if Amy is a bathroom hog, Freda can’t colour coordinate to save her life and Richard Jones keeps being attentive to John’s wife. Like in a Patricia Wentworth or Georgette Heyer novel, various characters’ negative characteristics come to the surface such as Amy’s selfishness or Freda’s spitefulness and of course there is the potential for romance as Richard flirts with Leigh. But is he too good to be true? After all a man willing to help clean up must be up to something! But not even sounds in the attic can ruin the party atmosphere…
That is until the following day when John falls off the roof and dies. It seems the Ballinger curse has enacted itself and becomes doubly confirmed when later that day John’s body moves from the bed to the chair. However, Leigh is not convinced, especially once she has noticed that the rope holding the scaffolding was cut not frayed. With murder afoot the police intervene and are comically but ably represented by Joe, whose exasperated wisecracks are definitely worth reading.
Being your usual Golden Age detective fiction family, many of the party start turning on each other, Freda in particular. Does she know more than she lets on? Or is it just spite? Richard, Berg and Leigh also decide to do some amateur sleuthing themselves, dogging Joe’s footsteps where ever he goes. Our black headed pins also eventually crop up in the case, but to be honest I thought these the weakest part of the mystery in that they seemed rather forced, brought rather late into narrative itself and if you actually removed them from the text completely, the plot wouldn’t really change much.
Knowledge may be power to Francis Bacon, but to the characters in this book, it also seems to be a dangerous thing, especially as the noises in the attic continue and the body count keeps rising. Leigh wonders when the deaths will end and how. Will it be by police intervention or the extinction of the Ballinger family? Again in the style of Wentworth and Heyer, Leigh also has decide on affairs of the heart, a decision difficult to make when people keep dying and misunderstandings are abounding.
I thought the choice of killer clever, with certain Christie parallels. However, although the solution to the crime is perfectly plausible in retrospect, I’m not sure if readers are able to solve it independently, though of course it could just be me. There are clues, including of course the black headed pins, but also a list of odd items found in people’s rooms. Yet, I think this latter clue was given to the reader too late to do much with. I feel this book is more character and dialogue driven, which did make it an entertaining read, as opposed to a much stricter puzzle focused mystery. Consequently I felt the characters in this book were well developed and even though they seemed to fall into familiar types, the Littles, still managed to surprise me. Leigh is good choice as narrator and due to her status in the household, which is akin to a Victorian governess in that she is both a servant and allowed to fraternise with the guests, means she can gather information from all sources. Furthermore, her jibes at her employer and the guests make the book a funny one to read. As the narrative develops, Leigh becomes more of a rebel, freeing herself from servile behaviour and attitudes and in a way this made her seem to me more like a much less snobby and more likeable Jane Eyre type figure.
Humour, characterisation and narrative surprises make this a highly entertaining read and pushes it beyond the sphere of Wentworth and Heyer novels, though there are stylistic and atmosphere similarities. Out of the three Christmas themed novels I have reviewed on this blog so far, this is by far the best and well worth reading.
Interested in finding out about other Little books? Head over to The Invisible Event blog and read JJ’s review of The Black Shrouds (1941):