There’s nothing better than a nice murder to warm the cockles at Christmastime. In fact, the fine tradition of festive homicide has given rise to such literary gems as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Francis Duncan’s Murder for Christmas, J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White and CHB Kitchin’s Crime at Christmas, and each year new yuletide mysteries appear like magic under sparkling Christmas trees. Now, DM Austin delivers a welcome present to those who like their murders seasonal with her atmospheric debut novel, A Christmas Murder of Crows.
The trouble begins in late December of 1923 when Sir Henry de Trouville makes a mistake that is unfortunately common among elderly misanthropes of more than moderate means: he invites his extended family to visit him at Crowthwaite Castle for Christmas. Located just outside the small and relatively isolated village of Crowthwaite in Westmorland, the castle has been home to the de Trouville family for generations and so has hosted more than its fair share of family squabbles.
Things seem more fraught than ever this year, however, as Sir Henry has recently married his third wife, the much younger and decidedly non-genteel Lady Violet, apparently with the express aim of finally producing an heir. But while Sir Henry has not yet managed to father a child of his own, he was responsible for raising his nieces – Ava, Bertha and Clara – following the death of their parents, and all three of them plus their significant others have made the journey to Crowthwaite for Christmas.
Also spending the festive season at the castle are Susan Markham, a distant cousin of Sir Henry; James Bowes, a young family friend of the de Trouvilles whom Sir Henry has taken under his wing; Tom Atkinson, Sir Henry’s private secretary; and a number of live-in staff, including long-time butler Fawcett, the cook and several housemaids. Although the greatest concern on everyone’s mind seems to be whether Sir Henry has gathered them together to announce the imminent arrival of a new de Trouville, there are numerous other issues and resentments bubbling away beneath the surface.
Indeed, Christmas Eve passes at a brisk pace as the guests seemingly take turns to bicker with each other, bemoan Sir Henry’s allegedly miserly nature and seek private audiences with him to request support for various schemes and endeavours. For his part, Sir Henry thinks nothing of denigrating his wife and other family members, playing favourites and foolishly risking ire by offering to fund divorces and threatening to disinherit those who displease him. It’s dangerous to stir up so much resentment at any point, but at Christmastime Sir Henry really is asking for trouble.
Yet, as the de Trouvilles and their guests toast the arrival of Christmas, it isn’t Sir Henry who ends up dead, although the murder nevertheless sets in motion a series of strange events that will ultimately spell doom for more than one person present. Fortunately, just before the passes through the Pennines are closed due to a heavy snowstorm and Crowthwaite is cut off from the outside world, Detective Inspector Gilbert Dunderdale and Sergeant Collins make it through to the castle.
With its perplexing murder, intrepid detectives and closed circle of suspects trapped together for the foreseeable future, A Christmas Murder of Crows features all the ingredients of a classic country house mystery. Austin does a great job of introducing the various characters as they arrive at Crowthwaite Castle and interact with its residents, slowly building the sense of tension as information is revealed about the relations between them all and hints are dropped regarding troubles to come. The oppressive atmosphere of the place is clear even before the murder occurs and the weather closes in, leaving both the detectives and the suspects trapped with a killer.
Actually, the troubling atmosphere of the castle and surrounding grounds is exacerbated and rendered more sinister by the family history that Austin has crafted for the de Trouvilles. Back in the winter of 1699, the third baronet’s young son fell in and, when all other hopes of a cure were exhausted, he made a pagan sacrifice – the titular murder of crows – in an effort to save the boy’s life. The sacrifice worked and the de Trouville tradition of making a similar offering every solstice was born. The tradition persisted for a hundred years until sightings of a spirit prompted the baronet at the time to end the practice.
Pearl Bell, the barmaid at the local pub, is invited to the castle to relate the story of the sacrifice to those present for the Christmas Eve meal and, coupled with the pervasive air of distrust and misery, sets them all even more on edge. While Sir Henry rubbishes the notion of a family curse due to the unfulfilled sacrifice, several of his relative tease him about the danger he is facing. It may seem implausible, but when death does eventually visit the castle, it appears that there might be some link to the old story after all. This extra aspect of the story adds a macabre layer to the mystery and so makes it even more difficult to unravel.
Of course, Dunderdale is not someone to be distracted by spooky tales and suggestions of paranormal involvement. For all his patience with the family and pretence of belief regarding their apparent fears, he knows the killer to be all too human and quickly sets about determining the who, how and why behind the crime. In true Golden Age style, he keeps his thoughts and deductions to himself until the last minute, thereby allowing Austin to draw the story to a close with a powerful Poirot-style denouement in the drawing room.
Packed with potential suspects and featuring more than a few red herrings, A Christmas Murder of Crows centres on a fiendishly complex murder plot that draws together the troubles of the time and a history of peculiar violence in order to perplex and entertain.
Crows you say? Rituals? Here’s a dark than dark one from Sweden.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars