I was in the mood for something Christmassy this weekend, so this recent British Library reprint seemed like the obvious choice, especially given how many classic crime mysteries I have already read. Rupert Latimer was the pseudonym for Algernon Vernon Mills (1905-1953) and Martin Edwards, in the reprint’s introduction, provides a lot of interesting details from his life. For example, ‘tragedy struck him during infancy. On a trip to France, he ate strawberries that had grown in the wild. They were contaminated and he contracted typhoid fever; although he survived, his elder sister and their nurse both died. For the rest of his life, he was lame and suffered from epilepsy.’ Sadly, his career and life were cut short by a brain tumour.
‘Good old Uncle Willie―rich, truculent and seemingly propped up by his fierce willpower alone―has come to stay with the Redpaths for the holidays. It is just their luck for him to be found dead in the snow on Boxing Day morning, dressed in his Santa Claus costume and seemingly poisoned by something in the Christmas confectionery. As the police flock to the house, Willie’s descendants, past lovers and distant relatives are drawn into a perplexing investigation to find out how the old man met his fate, and who stands to gain by such an unseasonable crime.’
It is fair to say that Latimer’s mystery would do well in a game of Christmas mystery trope bingo. For instance:
- The victim is a rich relative,
- This victim is found outside in the snow,
- The victim is dressed up as Father Christmas,
- The victim was bumped off via poisoned Christmas victuals
- There is a snowman within the crime scene and plays a role within the mystery,
- There are suspicious footprints in the snow and
- Last but not least, the victim intends to write a new will once their solicitor can visit them after Christmas.
Given how lengthy this list is, it is not surprising that Superintendent Cully muses that:
‘this case should have all the ingredients of a detective story. Beginning with the snowman, where the body should have been hidden but wasn’t. Going on to the long-lost heir, who wasn’t one. The sinister and scandalous autobiography, which was neither sinister nor scandalous, but just drivelling and incoherent, apparently. The footprints that had nothing to do with the murder. and all the poisoned good, which not only wasn’t poisoned but he hadn’t even eaten any of it.’
Yet what really impressed me with this mystery is that these well-known tropes are used in a very creative fashion, taking the crime in new directions, and upsetting (in a good way) the reader’s preconceived ideas about what has been and is occurring in the story. Something else I found really interesting was how much more of an event Boxing Day was, as the social activities are more concentrated on this day, which I think contrasts with current trends. But then again this is a tale which has lot of rich details interwoven into it, so as well as being a great read, it is also a very useful source material for those interested in how Christmas was experienced during WW2.
Some mystery authors, such as E. C. R. Lorac, in the early 1940s liked to incorporate WW2 into the backgrounds and murders of their mysteries. Rupert Latimer is definitely another such writer, as the conflict is part of the picture from the very beginning. For example, the reason why Sir Willoughby has taken up Rhoda and Frank Redpath’s offer to stay with them over Christmas is that the hotel he was living in had been ‘commandeered.’ Moreover, we discover that he is also unable to reach any of his other properties:
‘Rhoda reminded him [Frank] superfluously that the present war was declared to make it as difficult as possible for poor Uncle Willie to cross the Channel and that Mussolini and had finally decided to take sides in the current European unpleasantness in order to make it finally impossible for Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton to occupy his villa in San Remo.’
Frank also adds that:
‘Keep forgetting about this beastly war. And then there was a revolution before that, wasn’t there, so as to blow up his castle in Spain? Altogether, the old man seems to have caused a lot of trouble in the world, one way and another, doesn’t he?’
As you can see from these passages, Latimer’s tone is quite light and may seem frivolous, but I wouldn’t say it is of the same variety as you might encounter in pre-WW2, but post WW1 mysteries. This type of humour is arguably a coping mechanism and I have noticed in a few mysteries written and set in WW2 that death and private murder are perceived differently due to the fact a major world war is going on which is seeing thousands upon thousands being injured and killed on a regular basis. This is possibly why we get flippant remarks such as this one by Frank regarding Sir Willoughby’s letter: ‘Don’t tell me he’s dead at last?’ To which Rhoda replies: ‘No; he doesn’t say anything about being dead.’
The war also crops up in other ways in the book. For example, the Redpaths mention the determined nature of billeting officers in making sure all available spare rooms are filled with displaced persons. After all the Redpaths have their aunt staying with them, as well as a family in their garage. There is also a reference to volunteer police, known as specials, whom Rhoda opines ‘suffer from delusions of grandeur and think they are a sort of Gestapo…’ Rationing and the much greater social opprobrium towards wasting food play a part in this mystery and we also have mention of a female taxi driver. However, one of my favourite references to the war comes from Rhoda: ‘“John, why don’t you take Margery to see the Spelman’s crater? Children have been tobogganing down it,” she told Margery, not without bomb-snobbishness.’ I must admit to chuckling at this final phrase.
One of the reasons I really enjoyed this book was its characters. Some are wonderfully eccentric and quirky, and they were just simply people I wanted to read more about. To me that sounds like an author who has done their job well. From a mystery puzzle point of view Latimer is also very good at giving his suspects traits which could make them appear suspicious or be simply unusual quirks or ways of perceiving things. Frank Redpath is certainly a strong example of crime suspicion ambiguity.
In addition, I equally liked how Sir Willoughby is a more nuanced victim. He is not reductively made into an over-the-top horrible person. His domestic life is complicated to say the least, but he is no one’s Simeon Lee. He has been married more than once and does not live with his current wife. Yet their marital dysfunctional is unusual:
‘He must have enjoyed being a fairy godmother very much, thought Rhoda, and wanted to be one again, which seemed the only possible explanation for his marrying Mrs Sinclair-Horsham, with all her dependents, in nineteen thirty-three. He could not have found that worthy lady amusing or companionable. She didn’t care for the Riviera, wouldn’t live in London, and hated Scotland; so that, after walking up the aisle, he was not known to have met her since, though he corresponded with her a lot and someone introduced her to him at the Coronation of King George VI.’
Furthermore, money and inheritance do play a role in this story, but I think Latimer successfully thwarts simplistic motive deductions.
I have mentioned Frank and Rhoda a lot and that is probably because they are significant factor in my enjoyment of this book. They are not carbon copies of Tommy and Tuppence, bright young things of the 1920s, but I think they do share some of their sparkle, even though they are suspects and not sleuths. They are an entertaining duo, and they are effective at introducing us to the situation and other characters well. Moreover, their reactions to subsequent events, once Sir Willoughby’s body has been discovered, also push the narrative into interesting directions.
This is not a humorous novel in a bold way, like the work of Leo Bruce and Alan Melville can be, but I still think there is a humorous vein within it and that it is a lens the narrative voice sometimes adopts to view murder. This is evidenced in the arrival of Sir Willoughby:
‘…as soon as Uncle Willie arrived he really did seem to be the easiest person in the world to murder. in fact, he almost succeeded in murdering himself twice at the station: firstly by nearly falling on to the line while alighting from the train, then by nearly strangling himself at the ticket barrier in searching for his ticket beneath his many layers of clothing.’
This passage also shows how gentle humour is used to reveal character; a function of comedy which is not always touched upon.
I have talked a lot about themes and characters, but that is not because the puzzle plot is lacking or not present. There are times where we seem to be getting a lot of character info and dialogue, yet these are passages where the reader ought not to nod off. For instance, in one of the early chapters Rhoda is replying to Sir Willoughby’s letter, confirming his stay with them, and bringing him up to speed with local news. This chapter concludes with Rhoda reflecting upon this letter: ‘It’s fairly enticing […] and bristling with information for the reader. If any,’ she added.’ I certainly felt this was a line with a double meaning.
There is a richness of plot and prose and I think Latimer gives the reader a lot of things to wonder over, so much so, that some important stuff is slipped passed you. The social aspects of Christmas, for instance, are cleverly used by the writer to desensitise the reader. Particular details are referred to, and the reader may assume these details only tie in with one specific surprise of the story, only to then discover that they link with other things too.
Another interesting and enjoyable aspect of the puzzle plot is the behaviour of the Redpath family members afterwards. Some of it puzzling to say the least, especially when they invite the Superintendent to stay with them, whilst he investigates the case. Is this behaviour all eccentricity or do they have an ulterior motive? And is this motive a criminous one or not?
Murder After Christmas is remarkably like a Christmas pudding (or for those who don’t like Christmas puddings, a chocolate pudding). Its prose is something to savour, rich with enjoyable lines and turns of phrase. In the same way that eating a whole pudding by yourself or scoffing all the chocolates in the tin might be considered a bit too indulgent, the plot in places is extravagant, but it’s an extravagance which Latimer pulls off and this reader at least was happy to excuse him. It is nearly Christmas after all…
The narrative could have been trimmed down a bit, particularly the final third. However, the solution is quite an intricate one, with more than one layer to it. I enjoyed how it riffs upon an idea another more famous writer had used in one of their books (Translate this ROT13 coded title at your own risk: Gur Hacyrnfnagarff ng gur Oryyban Pyho) and I feel their handling of the concept quite refreshing.
So all in all this was a brilliant Christmas mystery and I strongly recommend you picking up a copy to enjoy this festive season.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)