The week between Christmas and New Year seemed like the perfect time to review this festive classic crime novel!
Book: Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer
Publication date: 10th October 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death and murder (obviously!); various methods discussed, but nothing violent.
“A war’s on and a murder has been committed—and we sit here talking nonsense about almond whirls and mince pies!”
Good old Uncle Willie—rich, truculent and seemingly propped up by his fierce willpower alone—has come to stay with the Redpaths for the holidays. It is just their luck for him to be found dead in the snow on Boxing Day morning, dressed in his Santa Claus costume and seemingly poisoned by something in the Christmas confectionery. As the police flock to the house, Willie’s descendants, past lovers and distant relatives are drawn into a perplexing investigation to find out how the old man met his fate, and who stands to gain by such an unseasonable crime.
First published in 1944, Murder After Christmas cleverly twists the tropes of Golden Age detective fiction to create a pacey and light-hearted story for the festive season.
I will be honest with you: I found the actual plot of this book pretty confusing! I love a classic mystery, and I don’t tend to try too hard to solve them myself, because my favourite part is the big reveal when everything clicks together in ways you didn’t notice (I was raised on Sherlock Holmes, what can I say). But there was absolutely no way I could have guessed what was going on here; it’s an incredibly complicated, convoluted tangle of family secrets and personal motivations, plus one or two characters who seem determined to create even more deliberate confusion. I don’t mean that I didn’t have a good time – I did! – but it’s thanks to the characters and the atmosphere, as even after finishing the book I’m not 100% sure I know what happened…
This is a pacey read, and while there’s a whirlwind of characters to be introduced to at first, they each have a great deal of personality and it’s great fun to watch them interact. You can feel the exasperation of the practical detective as he realises the chaos he’s been thrown into! The prose is fairly terse and to the point (though some of the characters have the tendency to ramble in their dialogue), and there’s a strong thread of dark humour running throughout, with all parties involved familiar with the tropes of the detective novel and determined either to avoid them or re-enact them.
What I really loved about this one was the glimpse of social history it gave. Written in 1944, it offers a really interesting look at a wealthy family’s Christmas celebrations at the end of the Second World War; from how to handle rationing when you have guests coming to stay, to whether people will come to your party now that petrol is precious. The games and traditions of the season are familiar in places, but very different in others; the ‘Christmas Tree’, a kind of party held on Boxing Day, is a large part of the plot, as is the idea that it’s unlucky to eat mince pies before Christmas, which I’d never heard of. The war looms often in the background of conversation, particularly among the police characters, but is largely ignored by the wealthy families at the centre of the book. It’s just all a great peek into the time period in a way I wasn’t expecting, but was delighted by.
If you want a story that perfectly captures the chaotic whirlwind of the Christmas period, but adds an intricate murder mystery, Murder After Christmas is exactly the kind of book to pair with your mince pies. Four out of five cats!