Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.
Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blakepublished 1936
They spent most of the morning decorating the house. O’Brien threw himself into this with a kind of finicky abandon, dancing from room to room with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; rushing up stepladders; standing back from his handywork with hands raised like the conductor of an orchestra. Nigel followed him more soberly. He was intent on fixing the lay-out of the house in his memory.
[During Christmas dinner]
Just as they were laying down their glasses, the light went out. Nigel’s heart dropped like a stone. Now it was coming. It was here at last. The next moment he was cursing himself for a hysterical old woman. Arthur Bellamy entered with a flaming Christmas pudding. He set it down before O’Brien, remarking in a perfectly audible whisper, ‘Took a box of matches to light the blasted stuff, colonel. That there Mrs Grant has been swigging it on the QT you betcha life, and filling up the bottle with water.’ He retired and switched on the lights.
commentary: This is a proper old-fashioned Christmas mystery. The host, intrepid explorer and airman Fergus O’Brien, has received death threats, so naturally he has invited all possible suspects to spend the festive season with him. En route to the House Party of Death (my favourite ever Xmassy blogpost title) indeed. Nigel Strangeways, posh private detective, comes along to try to protect him - hence his sudden panic in the 2nd excerpt above.
There is a random academic present, mostly so he can be given excellent lines like this:
I revel in the seamy side of life. But one sees so much of it in the Senior Common Room that there is no need to associate with professional criminals.And there is that fascinating staple of 30s fiction, the roadhouse and the man who runs it:
‘Was a brass-hat in the war and runs a roadhouse in the peace, and if you can tell me a more nauseating combination of activities I’ll eat my hat… [The roadhouse] is near London, Kingston bypass or somewhere. Very posh and popular. He’s just the sort of [chap] to make a success of a thing like that. Smacks the women on the bottom and wears all his medals on his dinner-jacket no doubt.’There is the beautiful but cold-hearted Lucilla, who is in mourning and…
…had conjured up from somewhere a dress that conveyed a suggestion of widow’s weeds and at the same time was an invitation to all comers.Obviously here at Clothes in Books we had no interest in illustrating THAT – nah, just kidding, take a look at the end of the entry.
The book takes a sudden excursion to County Wexford in Ireland in pursuit of some history, and this section is short and hilarious – normally I am allergic to comic Irish persons, but this was funny and charming without being condescending.
There are some dull passages in the book while everyone tries to work out the impossible crime, footsteps in the snow, how was the poison administered, where’s the will – but overall it was a pleasing seasonal read, with a satisfactory ending.
Earlier this year I wrote a blogpost about the lack of children in Christmas mysteries – and this is a prime example, not a happy child to be found, no stockings, no Santa Claus. In fact everybody just about forgets it’s Christmas after the dinner above – it’s not mentioned again, and the only seasonal aspect really is the snow.
Man decorating tree is a Dutch salt miner in 1933
Christmas pudding from the state library of Queensland.
The mourning getup is from Clover Vintage, and is from 1938.
There are several other Nicholas Blake mysteries on the blog.