This edition of a 1985 book was brought out in time for Christmas in 2016, but despite the title it is not really a Christmas book. It is, however, a well written mystery set in a Cathedral town, with plenty of understanding of not only the Cathedral staff and families, but also local families who are often living strange lives. It is midwinter, the weather of necessity to the plot is freezing, and dark deeds are definitely afoot.
The senior Cathedral clergy and one or two external people are divided over the important decision whether to sell a copy of the Magna Carta. This is a fictional cathedral in a fictional town of Litchester, but having special knowledge of Cathedral politics, I can say there is definitely some familiar elements here. The novel opens with a collector of artefacts in America, then swings to a service of evensong in the Cathedral. This is not a general description of heavenly singing and clergy confidence; each clergyman (no women priests yet!) has his idiosyncrasies in part revealed by their contribution to the service. Despite the largely benign leadership of the Dean, blind but more than able to contribute to the sorting out of the situation, petty jealousies and ambitions abound. Mark Treasure is a banker in London, but apparently is one of Williams’ characters who gets involved in solving mysteries through several novels. For arcane reasons he is drawn into the dispute, which soon becomes a murder mystery as an aged verger is found dead in a damaged library. Local history is consulted, a remarkable family is discovered, and no one is quite safe as shots are heard and further death happens.
The main strength of this book, in addition to its strong mystery, is its characters and their relationships. The clergy wives comment and decide what is really going on; the archivist has her eye on a certain clergyman, and they swop alibis and drop dark hints about what is happening around them. Mark Treasure investigates with the help of a farm agent, and discovers near gothic goings on at a family farm. There are confusing elements to this book, and it certainly is not a smoothly defined mystery, but it evokes cleverly the sense of an enclosed community whose day to day life is discussed and dissected by its members. For a relatively recent novel it has some of the hallmarks of a golden age mystery, including a limited number of suspects and motives which are not just personal gain. The role of the police is limited, but a little help is given to prompt significant course of action.
This is a good book to read at virtually any time of the year, and I would recommend it to those who enjoy non-violent, character led mysteries in a solidly British setting.
There are some good Christmas books out there, including collections of short stories with a festive theme. Some stories appear in more than one book! I am enjoying “Murder on Christmas Eve” from Profile books, but have recognised one story so far. “An English Murder” by Cyril Hare is so good so far, with a well drawn series of characters in a snowy house. Oh, and just to mention of “Murder on Sea” by Julie Wassmer, being a lot more modern in every respect!