The Murder of Father Christmas (1934) by Pierre Véry (Trans. Alan Grimes)

I had been struggling this year to find a new-to-me vintage Christmas mystery to read, as I have read a lot! Proof of which can be found in the ranked list I posted a few years ago. Since then, I have also read the excellent Christmas mystery, Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer. So, when I came across today’s read and more importantly found the only online copy going for a reasonable price, I was chuffed. But how did things pan out? Let’s see…

This is a cover for Pierre Very's The Murder of Father Christmas. It has Father Christmas lying dead in the snow, houses in the background and a man holding an golden arm looking on.

Firstly, some information about the author. Véry was born in Bellon, Charantes. He dreamed of growing up to be a racing cyclist, but he ended up working on cargo ships instead. Following that he was a bookseller in Rue Monsieur-le-Prince. My edition of the book comes with an introduction by Roger Giron who notes that: ‘To amuse himself he wrote a pastiche of the English detective novel The Testament of Basil Crookes.’ This novel won the Adventure Tales prize, which had been established by Albert Pigasse. Véry went on to write ‘a series of pseudo-police novels,’ which adopted the ‘formula’ of writing mysteries in which ‘the narrative or the puzzle serves as a pretext for the development of the fantastic or poetic plot.’ The author was also interested in the cinema, and he adapted some of his own books during the 1930s.

Given that this was an author I knew nothing about, it was helpful to have the introduction, although what weakened the reading experience of this section was that Giron awkwardly deploys present and future tenses when talking about the past, meaning sentence construction comes across as rather jarring.

Synopsis

‘Pierre Véry’s gripping mystery The Murder of Father Christmas involves a double murder and a double theft of precious stones from a church in a small town in Lorraine in the midst of a snowstorm around Christmas time.’

Overall Thoughts

Most of this novel takes place in a rural small town and the narrative commences with a Christmas pageant and for a page or two, as the focus shifts to the local priest and his assistant, it strangely felt more like a story which was set in Medieval times, rather than 20th century France.

Mystery novels as time has progressed have tended to be more focused on murder as the crime to be investigated, the logic behind this being that it is easier to sustain a novel with a bigger crime to explore. It is one of the reasons why Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), is a bit of a marmite read, as it is a chunky mystery which omits such as a misdeed. So it was interesting to see how Pierre Véry’s book kicks off with the threat of a theft of an important relic, before allowing murder to raise its ugly head. The local priest, Father Fuchs, sees off one attempt of theft in the opening chapters, (which for a time poses an impossibility in how the assailant escaped) and reveals the series of anonymous notes he has been receiving about the relic. I felt the way the author deploys this narrative event made the setup of the mystery more intriguing and interesting.

Pierre Véry has some fun in introducing his village characters to us. We have the sacristan, Blaise Kappel, who is quite amusing in the way he fusses over Father Fuchs, yet soon reveals a mysterious side to his character when he is said to be visiting a ruined abbey at night-time, with a pickaxe. Why would he be doing that? There is also Mr Villaird, who is a diehard republican (French variety), a local schoolteacher and leader of the town band, which he uses as a way of counteracting all church activities. So his response to the pageant was to have his band play the Battle Song of Departure. Yet I think Véry employs a level of satire or parody with this character as later when Mr Villard meets Marquis de Santa Claus (more on him later), we are treated to this speech from the former to the latter:

“I’m not in the habit of mincing my feelings, Marquis. I’m what they call a fierce republican. Liberty, equality, fraternity. I believe in those three words and, without denying that the nobility has done a great deal for the development of literature and of the arts, I condemn them. Let me be quite clear. I am not raising a question of personalities, I am condemning a principle. I am for the abolition of privilege. You shouldn’t mind me there; it’s a complete man speaking to you. Outside of that, believe me Marquis, very happy that Mortefont is sheltering within its walls a man of your quality, an envoy of the elite. I am only an obscure schoolteacher and your visit honours me greatly.”

I felt like the concluding sentence is deliberately set up to undermine the rest of the passage, in a comic fashion.

After the initial robbery attempt of the valuable relic, Father Fuchs refers the problem to his superior who in turn has a deputy contact a barrister in Paris. This barrister is Prosper Lepicq, yet from our first encounter with him, you might find his first name a little ironic. The author introduces us to Lepicq in a humorous way as Lepicq’s secretary, Jugonde executes a subterfuge to screen the fact that his boss sleeps in his office and is currently still in bed. There is also the pretence of work:

‘Seated at his desk, Jugonde reached for a folder. Like all the others, it was swollen with blank paper. The young man went to the bookcase and took down a weighty work on inheritance. He feigned swotting up on it, seemed to collect his thoughts and finally, pushing his lower lip out and nodding his head with the air of a person just solving a specious argument, he plunged his pen into the ink and begin to write feverishly: when I was small I was not large. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Like father, like son. Once upon a time France was known as Gaul. Our ancestors the Gauls… He wrote what passed through his mind, his sole aim being to give the impression that he was a secretary to a lawyer weighed down with business.’

From this scene I think my first impressions of Lepicq were that he was a bit scruffy and unprofessional. However, this contrasts sharply with what the Archbishop of Paris says about him: ‘They speak volumes of his ability, his suitability and of his tact […] In addition, he is an intelligent man. What more can we say?’ I think this discrepancy is deliberate between the way Lepicq presents himself publicly and how he is privately.

One aspect of Véry’s writing style that I noticed was that he often doesn’t put down on paper what was said in a given meeting or interaction. For instance, we don’t know what transpired during the conversation between the deputy of the bishop and Lepicq. Moreover, when the Marquis manufactures reasons for himself to call on local tradesmen (in the way Miss Marple does in Sleeping Murder (1976)), again we do not get a glimpse into what he says to these people or what they reveal to him. The plot has quite an episodic nature and I think the reader is more strongly, than in some mysteries, left to their own devices in drawing conclusions about what is going on in the story.

Father Fuchs’ superior, Bishop Gibel, whilst waiting to organise surveillance of the relic, receives an unexpected visitor, the Marquis de Santa Claus, who I mentioned previously. With such a phoney sounding name, I think it is inevitable readers will make some assumptions about who the Marquis really is, as detectives entering a case under a false name, is something which crops up on a semi-regular basis in crime fiction. An example which springs to mind is Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (1933). However, I think Véry utilises this trope in a very unusual and surprising way, which pleased me.

Another enjoyable scene of the story is when the local children are giving the postman their letters to Santa Claus. The postman plays along very gamely, finding out what they put inside their letters and commenting on the likelihood of them getting their heart’s desire. There is also a lovely line where we are told that there was ‘a sealed envelope decorated with a used German stamp stuck with a blob of fresh bread.’ In the run up to the murder we also see another Christmas tradition in which the local photographer takes on the role of Father Christmas, travelling from house to house to hear how well the children have been behaving this year and imbibing a bit more alcohol than he should do. It is when the post-Midnight Mass feast and dance is in full swing that two teenagers report their grisly discovery, that Father Christmas is dead… I felt this scene was very effective and I also enjoyed the complexity added to the case due to eyewitness discrepancies, which end up creating an impossibility of their own.

From what I have written so far you might think this was a largely successful read. However, this was unfortunately not the case. There are some wonderful lines and some great scenes, as well as some interesting sidelights on culture in France at the time. But Véry is incredibly frustrating to the reader if you want a proper detective mystery novel. Both solutions for the initial theft attempt and the murder heavily rely on information the reader does not have access to. Lepicq keeps his cards so tightly to his chest that it is hard to see he has any cards at all. We have no sense of what he is thinking or where he is going or what he wants to do next. If anything the way the villagers react to the case and voice their suspicions is more prominent than any actual detective work or unfurling of clues. After the first third of the narrative the plot begins to weaken a lot and there is a lack of forward propulsion. The denouement is anticlimactic, but I am unsure if this is intentional or not. To end on a positive though, I liked the running joke about the various reasons the police from Nancy get delayed from arriving to take over the case – their detours taking them far beyond the actual village.

So overall it was interesting to try this less well-known French mystery novelist, but I am not sure I would be rushing out to try more.

Rating: 3/5

See also: Tomcat has also reviewed this title.

11 comments

  1. You’re right that this not a proper detective novel. More of a criminal fantasy, or fairy-tale mystery, comparable to the flight of fancies by G.K. Chesterton (“The Flying Stars”) and Gladys Mitchell (The Rising of the Moon). It’s not what I hope to find in a mystery novel from the 1930s, but something you can get away with in a Christmas-themed mystery and a welcome change from the country house format that these seasonal stories tend to follow.

    Good to see you were able to find a copy. Cheap copies were becoming alarmingly scarce when I reviewed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well copies are pretty gold dust like at the moment. I guess I was online at the right time.
      Your comparisons to Mitchell and Chesterton are interesting. I enjoyed the Father Brown story but not the Mitchell. Maybe it is a style I can tolerate better in the short form. Or maybe I just liked Father B more as a character.
      I got on the hunt of this book because I think you suggested it somewhere on my blog before. Do you have any other Christmas mystery suggestions, so I can look out for them for next year?

      Like

          • Somehow, I missed your comment until now, but Mom Meets Her Maker is an unmistakably American take on the Christmastime mystery novel. The setting is a small town in the southwest and begins with a dispute over an extravagant, very loudly decorated house and front lawn. It stands out among the crop of typical, trope ridden and usually British Christmas mysteries with country house settings. And the plot is excellent!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m scattered brained sometimes, but forgot to strongly recommend Mary Monica Pulver’s 1991 Christmas mystery Original Sin, which has an unforgettable solution. Pulver found a fascinating way to the link the classical style of the Golden Age to the modern crime novel. Your holiday reading list is shaping up to be a ’90s nostalgia act. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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