Peter Swanson has written a criminous Christmas tale? His twisted, unsettling mysteries such as The Kind Worth Killing and The Kind Worth Saving don’t bend towards sentimentality or good will for that matter. But then this novella is for people who aren’t wedded to the idea that Christmas stories should serve up murder in cosy fashion with seasonal cheer.
Apparently, not everyone loves Christmas. In his dedication, Peter Swanson informs us that he has two aunts in that camp and we take this nod as a portent. Sure enough, nothing is quite what it seems. Yes, there may be a country house and a winter setting, but the mood soon turns very dark. The novel opens in 2019 with a middle aged woman alone at Christmas, opening dusty boxes and digging out an old diary written in December 1989…
Ashley Smith is an American student living and studying art in London. She thinks she’s flunked her English landscape exam and is a little homesick, determined to ride it out but not looking forward to Christmas alone. Out of the blue, Emma Chapman, a classmate she doesn’t know that well, invites her to spend Christmas at the family manor in the Cotswolds. What could be more pleasant, more romantic, than an English family Christmas in the beautiful winter countryside?
It occurs to Ashley that she hadn’t even realised Emma had noticed her until the invite. Come the day, she takes the train to Clevemoor and is met by Emma’s twin brother, Adam. He’s handsome and Ashley is instantly attracted to him and before long she is dreaming about him. You can’t help feeling for her naivety, her youthful passion that makes her vulnerable. Should she be this trusting?
Every night she writes in her diary and the story of her stay at Stavewood Hall slowly unfolds. The house is dilapidated, its grandeur faded and the servants quarters empty. It seems to represent the end of an era, the first signs of a privileged lifestyle decaying. Emma’s parents are a little distant but Emma, Adam and Ashley get on and the company of their friends in the local pub makes Ashley feel more comfortable.
Then someone tells Ashley about the murder of a young woman, Joanna – attacked by a maniac while walking home from the pub through the woods one night a few months prior. The police are baffled as to the identity of the brutal killer. Someone is hiding the truth and making plans – the killing isn’t over. Suffice to say Ashley has no idea what a dangerous a world she has stepped into. Perhaps she should have spent more time wondering why Emma invited her in the first place, but of course you couldn’t look things up on the internet in 1989.
Peter Swanson elegantly constructs his story to keep us on edge to the end, in suspense and constantly second guessing what is to come. We soon realise that the country house, the charm of the Cotswolds and the invitation to a lonely student to join an aristocratic family for Christmas are all a façade. The shifts in the narrative are genuinely thrilling and a tad disturbing. Clearly the American writer wanted to pay homage to the British golden age mystery and particularly the closed circle trope but he soon mischievously subverts expectations and outcomes.
The Christmas Guest is a tale for readers who don’t particularly feel this time of year demands a lighter read or seasonal seasoning. It all unfolds incrementally, as relaxed as the pace of a novella will allow, and the tension keeps mounting. Everything happens on a tight timetable and yet it all seems stretched out, measured and oozing menace. The tale is twisty and shocking, creepily so. It’s not a ghost story or a body in the bedroom shocker, and there are no cosy edges. The final twist is one that will chill the reader on the bone.
For those looking for a good read for a loved one for Christmas this fits the bill. The slim hardcover is elegantly bound and the jacket catches the eye. Of course it’s for someone who doesn’t object to a dark read amidst the festivities and the mince pies. It also includes the first chapter of The Kind Worth Killing for those who want to see the territory Swanson usually inhabits. As someone who doesn’t change reading to suit the seasons this was a pleasant surprise. The trees in the woods are to be feared far more than the tannenbaum in the living room with its flickering lights and baubles.
Also see A Christmas Murder of Crows by DM Austin.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars