It is very out of character for me to have read, not just one Christmas read at the appropriate time of year, but two!
Today’s story is narrated by John Rutherford, who along with his wife Molly, are visiting her aunt, Sybil de Frayne, in the runup to Christmas. This is not a visit John wanted to do, as he feared being roped into one, if not several, of the social and philanthropic activities that Mrs de Frayne is a part of. His fears are, unsurprisingly, completely justified and one such activity is the choral society singing carols street to street in aid of the cottage hospital. Numbers are low due to ill health, so Molly and John are dragooned into taking part. John and the others progress around the local arena, on a wet and soggy winter’s night, but mystery soon strikes. Namely two sets of mysterious footsteps and Thomas Trevelyan Vavasour, one of the collectors for the group, mysteriously disappears. One minute he is knocking door to door for donations and the next he is nowhere to be seen, along with the collection box… When the next day he still hasn’t turned up, it can no longer be assumed he went off to see friends or sneak back home. His wife, on the other hand, is acting oddly; her pretence that he has gone away on business is soon seen through, yet she is reluctant to call the police in. Nevertheless John and others, including eventually the police, keep at it until the truth begins to emerge and it doesn’t take long for it to be revealed that Thomas was keeping an awful lot hidden from his wife and friends…
Social comedy sets the tone for the opening chapters in this book, and this is something Witting does rather well. Sybil and her wife Charles are admirable predecessors to the Hyacinth and Richard Bucket in the 90s British TV comedy Keeping Up Appearances, though Charles, whilst obsequent, is not stupid and has many tricks for getting out of his wife’s many activities. Sybil’s micro-managing hosting style quickly endears you to the characters around her. Although she is likened to Mista, (one of the Valkyries), I don’t think we’re supposed to regard her as a “bad” character, as readers are more likely to be find her character traits more amusing than anything else:
‘Mr Rutherford, I know it is difficult when one doesn’t know the words, but if you must go la-la-la like that, I do wish you would do it to the right tune.’
A lot of humour is also delivered through various Christmas related activities John is obligated to do, including dressing up as Father Christmas on Christmas day for a children’s party Sybil always hosts. Part of the humour from this is derived from the sinking feeling John has as this truth dawns upon him. We also come across the cultural phenomena of husbands being bad at gift giving. Seemingly this is a timeless social issue!
John is quite a self-deprecating narrator, which I think makes him more likeable to the reader and below is one of my favourite examples of him doing so:
‘The unthinking will say that, given enough plaster of paris, any fool could do that. But I have watched Bradfield, and have afterwards tried to imitate him. His casts could have been used as evidence in a court of law; mine could not have been used as rockery in a most informal garden.’
In keeping with my last Witting read, we have an array of different characters who take on the sleuthing role. This is something which I think weakens Witting’s plots. Raymond Cloud-Gledhill, for example, is one of the earliest sleuths in the story. He is another house guest of Sybil, who arrives a day after the disappearance. Yet he is immediately enthusiastic to start investigating it, in a manner which I would describe as quite Gervase Fen like. For the first quarter of the book Raymond sleuths in earnest and finds evidence to suggest that Thomas did not leave via public transport. However, from this point Raymond rapidly drifts into the background and to be honest, whilst he adds some brief moments of colour to the narrative, he really is an extraneous character. One of the many police officers could have obtained the information he does, off the page, which would probably have cut the page count down. Raymond is randomly brought back into story in the final pages, but his reappearance is remarkably pointless.
You could argue that Raymond needed to be there, as the police can’t act too much until Thomas’ wife reports him as missing, something which she is not keen to do. But personally, I think John could maybe have stepped up to the task. After all he is the reason the police get involved as soon as they do, as his uncle just so happens to be Inspector Harry Charlton. Interestingly John very reluctantly follows Raymond around when he is questioning people and, on some occasions, even works in opposition to him. John tends to be more consistently in the frame, though frequently not always directly involved. He is more of a chronicler, though he is not much of a Watson. Witting’s characters definitely eschew clear sleuth/sleuth assistant categories. There are at least 3-4 police officers flitting on and off stage in this book, though John’s uncle takes a more prominent role. As with A Bullet for Rhino, I think Witting needed to streamline his cast of detecting characters, as the quantity of sleuthing characters undermines the plot, by directing reader attention too widely and too thinly across too many people. Although, in fairness to Witting, this weakness has a less detrimental effect in this book.
Furthermore, this is quite an unusual mystery novel in that the book starts with a disappearance as opposed to a definite murder, and I think Witting plays the disappearance angle quite well. There is also a more thorough police investigation in this book and information is more forth coming for the reader. In some ways you can argue that in light of the solution the investigation we follow is something of a red herring, yet Witting has actually crafted quite a clever and sneaky mystery, with a number of clues offered to the reader, which the reader then promptly misinterprets. The culprit of the case, I think, is intended as a big and shocking surprise. It was less so for me, as some elements of the plot sparked off an intuitive hunch, which for once turned out to be correct. Though in fairness there were many bits of the solution I hadn’t figured out and I was somewhat duped by the aforementioned deceptive clues. If I was giving Witting feedback on this book, the main point I would raise is that he has written a good mystery, but it’s a bit buried beneath extraneous material. However, it is still a festive read worth looking out for, (though it is not the easiest of books to get a hold of).
See also: John, who writes the Pretty Sinister blog, has also reviewed this title. Credit should also be given to John for the map depicted above, which comes from his review. My copy of the book also has it, but yes, I am lazy enough to not want to scan my own version in.