I decided to make this one of my monthly re-reads, not just because of its seasonal relevance, but because I wanted to see if a second read would significantly alter its position in my Epic Ranking of Christmas Mysteries. Currently out of 32 reads it stands at number 20, which before you panic is not as bad as it sounds, as rating wise it still works out at a 4/5. In the comments to this post it was interesting to see a wide range of opinions on this text. Some couldn’t stand it, whilst others were much more positive.
The story takes place mostly at Easterham Manor, in Essex. Over the Christmas period a prodigious amount of snow has fallen, and the children of the Manor, John and Priscilla Restorick were even able to make a snowman or rather a snow Queen Victoria. Now they are watching it melt and they recall the presence of the police in their home in the past few weeks, as well as the attendance of ‘private impersonator,’ Nigel Strangeways. The latter had been invited in to their home due to the manic behaviour of their cat, Scribbles, with the suggestion that someone had drugged it. Then of course there was the death of their wild and disreputable aunt Elizabeth. She was found hanging in her bedroom, but whether it was suicide is up for debate. However, whilst these events happened first, they are not the first ones told, as the opening chapter closes with the children watching to their horror as the melting snowman reveals a human corpse…
Nicholas Blake was perhaps not the experimentalist that Hull was, but some of his books, such as this one, deviate from the whodunnit norm. In this case the novelty factor is mostly a structural one, as the book begins with an opening chapter that reveals an unusually hid dead body, but then immediately moves back in time to the events which lead up to this discovery. Moreover, the events in question are not just house guests getting on each other’s wicks, (though that does occur), but there is a suspicious hanging which forms the main focus. The use of children characters in setting up this story, whilst not unheard of, is less common and is also well used here, as the narrator gets their first information about what has been happening from a child’s point of view.
Blake utilises quite an array of clues in this text, though many of which are quite slippery to handle, with more than one interpretation attached to them. At one point we also have Strangeways itemising the questions he needs to answer, reminiscent of Hercule Poirot and we also have the challenge of deciding which clues are genuine and which ones are planted. Of course, whilst we are trying to figure out what happened to Elizabeth, we also haven’t forgotten the deadly snowman, so there is that additional puzzle to solve, with a particular regard for how it might connect with the earlier death.
I wouldn’t say this is technically a closed suspect mystery, (though the amount of snow would make any outsider’s journey to the Manor very difficult), but it is treated as such by the investigators. What heightens this, “It’s one of us” feeling is how at a dinner before the first death, one of the house guests mentions that they know one person in this room, ‘lives for evil,’ which understandably makes you wonder which respectable veneer is concealing such villainy.
This book put me in mind of another writer, Christianna Brand, as both these authors had quite forward-looking writing when it came to the inclusion of social issues. Pregnancy outside of marriage/teen pregnancy and abortion feature in Blake’s story, and a significant part of the plot focuses on drug addiction and distribution. All of these elements converge on the victim. I don’t think her lifestyle is wholly endorsed, yet neither is she unambiguously damned and many characters consistently see her positive characteristics. Blake brings a degree of compassion to his writing and surprisingly adds a heroic and noble element, which readers may not anticipate. It is at this point that I have to remind myself this is a Christmas country house mystery. W. H. Auden said that a detective story had to bring incongruity to the reader, placing the body in a setting in which it would startle e.g. the stereotypical body in the library. Yet I think Blake takes this concept further, by not only having two shocking bodies, (for differing reasons), but then including events and themes which equally seem out of place in a country house. Some might find this too jarring, but I felt it worked quite well.
This book is nearly half way through the Strangeways series, and I believe it is pivotal story. It looks backwards to the earlier cases in the series, in particular Thou Shell of Death, echoing motive motifs, as well as other mystery building components. It is also one of Blake’s more complex cases, with a series of baffling and deadly events taking place, right up until the very end when the solution is given. Yet with its depiction of social issues and problems this novel also looks forward to the rest of the Strangeways’ cases still to be written and from this book onwards there is a definite shift in Blake’s writing focus and style.
So how has a re-read changed my Yuletide rankings? Well in terms of marks out of 5 I think the rating stays the same. However, I have decided to swap this title with The Advent of Murder, meaning it now sits at No. 18.
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title.