Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan


published 1949







[A traditional Christmas houseparty is assembling]

‘Uncle Benedict certainly likes to have all the Christmas trimmings,’ she said, with relief. ‘I suppose he’ll be playing his usual part?’

Blaise turned back from the window with a smile. ‘I think he looks forward to Christmas Eve all the year. He was sorting out his costume this morning and he’s been hiding mysterious parcels for days past!’

Christmas with Benedict Grame followed an orthodox and unvarying course. A house full of people, a large Christmas tree and Grame himself taking a child’s natural delight in appearing late on Christmas Eve in full regalia of long red cloak and white beard, making what he imagined to be an unobserved visit to the tree for the purpose of loading it with presents for his guests. He was a bachelor, and it seemed that having no children upon whom to expend his enthusiasms he had chosen this method of finding enjoyment. The very nature of his idiosyncracy ensured its being regarded tolerantly, and since Grame was a rich man whose generosity was well-known amongst his acquaintances, he was able to indulge in his annual playacting without ridicule. As a rule his guests knew of his custom before their arrival; if they didn’t they soon learned their cues from their more experienced companions.



commentary: Go back up that chimney Santa! Don’t come near this benighted house! No good will come of it.

Because – and I really don’t think these are spoilers – there are going to be people dressed in Father Christmas outfits, and one of them is going to be dead. There are plenty of suspects, many meaningful looks and malevolent stares, and everyone will be nervous for one reason or another.

After the huge success of last year’s Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon – a 30s seasonal mystery republished and apparently appearing in everyone’s Christmas stocking – it seems the publishers are scouring their backlists for a 2015 bestseller. Francis Duncan apparently wrote many murder stories, but he certainly is forgotten – I am familiar with most crime author names, and have several reference books, but I had never heard of him, and it is hard to find out anything about him.

The book is OK. It benefits hugely from the Christmas-y details, which give it a certain appeal. Duncan comments on

the bitter irony of the red-robed Father Christmas lying dead beneath a decorated Christmas tree, the missing presents, the snow-covered countryside providing such a seasonable background to the crime…

There is a great scene where the dead body is discovered in the middle of the night and everyone sits round the ‘crumpled Father Christmas on the floor’, dressed in their pyjamas and dressing gowns and eyeing each other warily – and that’s before they’ve even noticed that all the presents have gone missing.

But there are far too many characters (I never really worked out the difference between Lucia Tristam, Rosalind Marsh and Mrs Napier) and everyone has a secret. There are a number of different wrong-doers abroad on Christmas Eve, and there are plenty of tiresome false solutions. The detective has a penchant for romantic story magazines, and is invited to help by the police:

the ideal thing would be to have a sort of unofficial observer. Someone to whom people would talk freely, and who would be able to give us a much more accurate picture of things than we’re able to get for ourselves.

Murder for Christmas is worth reading because the Christmas details do provide a certain interest – but I’m not sure the rest of Duncan’s book will be resurrected any time soon.

There is a teashop scene which very much resembles one in the recent Margaret Yorke book, and to some extent one of my favourite short poems (previously mentioned in this Christmas entry):

In A Bath Teashop by John Betjeman

"Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—
Let us hold hands and look."
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop's ingle-nook

Picture from Wikimedia Commons.


Comments

  1. I haven't read any Francis Crane, either, Moira. This one really does seem to have some interesting contextual detail, and that can be worth reading. But I agree with you that there is definitely such a thing as too many characters and 'red herrings' and so on.

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    1. It's no great shakes as a mystery, but it had its moments, and I do always like a festive crime book..

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    2. And PS I know you meant Duncan not Crane, she's a quite different writer!

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  2. Ah Betjeman . . . I love that poem - can't you just see that inglenook, with horse brasses, perhaps, and an arrangement of dried flowers. Just yesterday I was thinking of that Betjeman poem about Christmas ('hideous tie so kindly meant') and now you have spurred me to get his Collected Poems off the shelf.

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    1. I did that poem for Xmas 2013 on the blog! http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/xmas-poem-by-john-betjeman-hideous-ties.html
      The older I get and the more I read him, the higher I rate him. Philip Larkin liked him very much too.

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    2. Might have known we'd both love this!

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  3. Some people scoff at the country house mystery...but I think those are the people who think they're a lot easier to pull off than they actually are. There's something of a gulf between the really good ones and the rest. Given I'm a bit of a Scrooge I think I can give this one a miss :)

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    1. Absolutely agree with you - the good ones are great, but there are some very routine ones around. I can't honestly say this one falls in the first category...

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  4. I have lists and lists of possible Christmas mysteries, and since you are not enthusiastic about this one, I won't add it. Although it does have true Christmas connections, unlike some of the ones I have on my lists, where they are only peripherally related to Christmas.

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    1. I know what you mean - there are books with Christmas-y scenes, and other ones that really enter into the season, and this is definitely the 2nd type. But given that you've got so many already, I wouldn't bother.

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