Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer
This wartime novel, originally published in 1944, fulfils all the requirements of a classic festive season murder mystery, and adds a few more themes in an effortlessly funny story. An elderly wealthy relative is staying in a family house for Christmas, a certain number of residents and visitors have access to the establishment, there is snow for footprint purposes, and a death occurs. As detailed in Martin Edwards’ informative Introduction, which reflects a certain amount of detective work in itself, Latimer did not produce many murder mysteries, but they were special for adding devices and humour to the basic storyline.
This edition from the British Library Crime Classics series is an amusing, clever and sometimes almost surreal presentation of a story with fascinating characters, and quite a complex story of suspicious death and detection. The plot revolves around a big enough house for a sizable party during one afternoon and evening, and those staying there are suitably squashed in with sort of evacuees in outbuildings and some servants. The wartime background is underplayed; it is the reason that Uncle Willie is present, as the “current European unpleasantness” makes it impossible for him to visit one of his foreign homes and makes the hotel where he has been staying eject him for the season. He is much married, including to some famous ladies, and he has amassed a great wealth. His story, and that of his often complicated set of friends and relations, provide an interesting background to his suspicious death, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining book.
As the book opens, his stepdaughter Rhoda Redpath is revealing to her husband Frank that she has heard from Sir Willoughby Keene – Cotton, and that “he doesn’t say anything about being dead”. Frank is not idly speculating about his death, given that Willoughby is about ninety years old, and has attained a near legendary status for his multiple marriages. He is also known to Aunt Paulina who is present, by some complex relationship, and she shows a typically mild interest in his situation. It transpires that there was a complex inheritance question in the past, whereby it looked as if Willoughby has denied Rhoda an inheritance, and a conversational topic was how to best murder the old man. Rhoda does point out that he did eventually pay the money over, so inviting him to stay for Christmas is not so unreasonable. Indeed, it seems that it may be “Bread Upon the Waters”, a small investment in the slender hope of a financial reward eventually. When Willoughby arrives by train he almost succeeds in murdering himself with his baggage and his progress to the house. He becomes a lively guest, with an interestingly selective memory and a determination to get his own way in terms of ordering in vast amounts of food despite rationing, and quickly establishing his need for a companion secretary to write up notes for his projected autobiography. When the neighbourhood hears of his presence they hasten to obtain invitations to a Christmas Tree party on Boxing Day, and obscure relations also arrive to pay tribute. A lively party duly takes place, in which Willoughby takes a part as Father Christmas rather than sitting around being observed. His body is discovered in the garden the following day, and experiments are undertaken to see if he could have fallen from a window. His death is at first considered to be natural, but John Redpath points out the impossibility of the footprints in the snow, and more investigations take place. A police officer decides to conduct a thorough investigation, and makes some unusual discoveries, especially when wills and inheritances make things more complicated.
This is a most enjoyable festive mystery with many amusing touches such as fake bodies and mysterious mince pies. The characters are so well drawn, with some idiosyncrasies that stick in the memory. I recommend this as a great winter entertainment, and a brilliant rediscovery of a classic book.