Written by Francis Duncan — The gorgeous old-school cover of this book gives a hint of what’s in store here; this is a golden age murder mystery that’ll certainly appeal to lovers of Agatha Christie – or anyone who enjoys a good, old-fashioned whodunnit.
Not many people have heard of Francis Duncan, who began writing crime fiction in 1937 and continued for the next 20 years or so. Murder for Christmas was published in 1949, and you can read a brief extract here. Vintage, it seems, has found a bit of a lost gem to republish this Christmas with its screenprint style retro cover.
In the book we meet the exotically named Mordecai Tremaine, former tobacconist, keen amateur sleuth and (his most endearing trait) lover of trashy romantic novels. He is a little surprised to be invited to spend Christmas with Benedict Grame, a man well known for his lavish Yuletide celebrations. After all, the pair had met only once – and then it was a fleeting encounter.
But Mordecai is nothing if not curious, and an intriguing postscript to the invitation card piques his interest enough to hastily cancel plans to spend time with family and trek off to the sleepy village of Sherbroome. There he meets an assortment of fellow guests, most of whom have been attending the soirée for years. The place is lavishly decorated, the tree is about to be trimmed and the host apparently loves to dress up as Father Christmas and get into the swing of things. So why does our would-be detective get the distinct feeling that something is amiss beneath the forced jollity?
His nose for trouble is correct too because by midnight on Christmas morning there is a dead body beneath the gaudily bedecked Christmas tree. And – horror or horrors – the victim is dressed as Santa Claus! Who of the gathered assortment of guests is desperate enough to have committed murder, and what was their motive?
It won’t come as any surprise to learn that Mordecai is intrigued by the mystery afoot – and with a touch of judicious encouragement from the police office in charge of the case, he sets off on a little clandestine investigating of his own…
All the elements for a classic crime mystery are here: a gathering at a remote country house, a dead body, lots of people with something to hide with myriad reasons for wanting to see the victim off and then, of course, there’s the man of the hour. Mordecai Tremaine is an insignificant little man, pince nez forever aslant and brain forever considering all possibilities. I loved him – he’s a cross between Poirot and Columbo, with a pinch of Barbara Cartland for good luck.
This is a book that could be read at any time of year but would certainly make perfect festive reading. The setting is as traditional as tinsel and turkey and the plot as sharp as father’s carving knife. It has humour, excellent characterisation and a gentle tone that would sit well following the after-Queen’s Speech nap. In short, its a wee cracker and I congratulate Vintage for a canny bit of festive marketing.
If you like the sound of this you may also enjoy Val McDermid’s Christmas is Murder.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars