Joseph spent the days immediately preceding Christmas in decorating the house. He bought paper-chains, and festooned them across the ceilings; he pricked himself grievously in countless attempts to fix sprigs of holly over all the pictures; and he hung up bunches of mistletoe at all strategic points. He was engaged on this work when Mathilda Clare arrived. As she entered the house, he was erecting an infirm step-ladder in the middle of the hall, preparatory to securing a bunch of mistletoe to the chandelier….
Joseph [said] could he not persuade Maud to lay aside the book and help him with the tree? He could not. In the end, only Mathilda responded to his appeal for assistance. She asserted her undying love for tinsel decorations, and professed her eagerness to hang innumerable coloured balls and icicles on to the tree…
Roydon was at first inclined to lecture the company on the childishness of keeping up old customs, and Teutonic ones at that, but when he saw Mathilda clipping candlesticks on to the branches, he forgot that it was all very much beneath him, and said: ‘Here, you’d better let me do that! If you put it there, it’ll set light to the whole thing.’
observations: The top photo is quite a good version of Joseph, though it actually shows a Dutch salt miner in 1933. But I can tell you one thing – it is quite hard to find pictures of tree-decoration that don’t involve children, because we all know that the festive season is about little ones and their innocence. So Christmas murder stories, traditional ones set at a family gathering, tend to make sure there are no kids around. You’d say they were 'ruthlessly disposed of for plot purposes', but we can keep that phrase for the victim - in this case a fairly unloved old man, the kind who holds the purse-strings and rules the family. So the plot is a straight combination of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, and Georgette Heyer’s own splendid (non-murder) romance, The Unknown Ajax – my favourite of her books.
The murder plot isn’t of the best – it is a locked room mystery with a solution that seemed to leave a lot of questions, and deciding on the villain didn’t slow me down. But none of that matters: this is a very funny book, with great mean characters and very little sentiment about Christmas:
Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.And don’t we all recognize the character above who has no time for all the nonsense, but can still jump in and start interfering and doing it better.
The investigation into the murder seems to go at a leisurely pace: I kept thinking several days had passed, but it was still 25th December. Policemen and lawyers can, apparently, be summoned and come down on the train on The Day – the 11.15 from Waterloo.
There is the usual unabashed snobbery from Heyer: a visiting fiancée, Valerie is obviously a very common young woman indeed. But all is forgiven because of the magnificence of her mother, who arrives to protect her ‘girlie’: Mrs Dean is ‘a figure in a Persian lamb coat and a skittish hat, perched over elaborately curled golden hair’ who later reveals ‘a formidable bust, covered by a tightly fitting lace blouse and supporting a large paste brooch.’
She is a wonderful character, almost the equal of Mrs Dillington-Black in Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds – see blog entry here. I loved the moment when her daughter almost decides to share a room with her – to dramatize her fears – but ‘reflected in time that she would not, in this event, be allowed to smoke in bed, or to read into the small hours.’
Mrs Dean is not over-impressed by the company. Posh, arty, full-of-herself Paula says - tossing back her hair:
‘No-one has ever yet succeeded in organising me!’
‘If you were one of my girlies,’ said Mrs Dean archly, ‘I should tell you not to be a silly child.’
The expression on Paula’s face was murderous.This may not be the best murder story ever written, but it is an excellent Christmas read.
In the second picture, the other child-free man adding candles is of course Father Christmas (from the New York Public Library ) – a Christmas card from the 1900s, so before the days of a defining red-coat. Coca Cola has a nice FAQ here about the way Santa is portrayed, and their role in that.