DCI Brett Nightingale, days before Christmas, is tasked with solving an unusual burglary, which has also ended in death, for the victim of the theft – Princess Olga Karukhina; a Russian exile living in London. Her home is not very well to do, impoverished, yet it seems Princess Olga preferred to live below her means, storing up her jewel encrusted family heirlooms for her own pleasure. This theft is seen as the latest in a string of robberies which are targeting high value items of jewellery and objet d’art. Whilst this is not your usual classic crime murder case, investigating this robbery is not without its risks for the police officers involved, as the final third of the book reveals the havoc snow can play when you’re trying to corner desperate crooks.
Martin Edwards, in this latest reprint, continues his long line of informative and fascinating introductions, providing lots of unusual background information on Mary Kelly, as well as giving readers the bigger picture on her writing career as a whole. The origins of today’s title come from a time when Kelly was ‘sent, in error, a set of books about Russia to review,’ her name being similar to the intended recipient, Marie-Noelle Kelly. In his concise manner, Martin describes, The Christmas Egg, as ‘an unconventional Christmas crime novel by an unconventional writer’ and points out that it is ‘not an elaborate whodunnit,’ nor ‘a police procedural novel of the kind that John Creasey popularised in the 1950s.’ Instead ‘Kelly’s principal focus is on the study of character and on the idiosyncrasies of British society.’ I definitely found this statement to be true, with Kelly shining a light on a character suffering from persecution mania, as well another who has become stilted from living under another’s delusion. We also get to see a more personal side to DCI Nightingale and in the main he is the character we spend the most time with. The dynamic between him and Sergeant Beddoes is an enjoyable element of the book.
If you have read John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum, another British Library Crime Classic reprint, then you might find the structure in Kelly’s book to be quite similar, with the more conventional steps of a police investigation being overtaken by a police operation to capture the criminals and the loot when they meet to divide up the spoils. This operation takes place in Kent, in and around some marshes, which are made treacherous with the snow falling. Nevertheless, I don’t feel Kelly is either interested or competent in using such an action scenario as a means to creating tension or pacey atmosphere. It is certainly a first for me to find a police officer giving a potential suspect a Latin lesson whilst trying to trudge through snow in order to find help! Though in some ways I think Nightingale is a precursor to the educated police detective we find in P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh. Rather than collecting evidence and then solving the case, I think Nightingale tends to react more to events as they unfold. He is also given a very large shortcut in the form of an informant. Personally, for the me, the sequence involving the police operation on the marshes, is very overdrawn, taking up at least 30% of the book, if not more. Kelly does provide some surprises in the solution though.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
See also: Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has also reviewed this title.