Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three mystery novels during the 1930s, all of which are now available as British Library Crime Classics. This one, The Santa Klaus Murder, sounded as though it would be perfect for the time of year, and of course it was. I enjoyed it, although I found it very similar to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, and not as good as either of those books.
The Santa Klaus Murder is set in and around Flaxmere, a country estate belonging to Sir Osmond Melbury. The novel opens with several first-person accounts written by members of Sir Osmond’s family as they gather at the house to celebrate Christmas and in this way we get to know all of the main characters and learn a little bit about their backgrounds and the relationships between them.
It seems that for many years, Sir Osmond has been trying to control and manipulate the lives of his adult children. His son, George, has the security of knowing that, as the only male heir, his inheritance is safe, but for the four daughters things are much more uncertain. He has already tried to influence, with varying success, the marriages of the three eldest girls – Hilda, Edith and Eleanor – and is now trying to do the same with Jennifer, the youngest. Philip Cheriton, the man Jennifer loves, is attending the Christmas gathering, but Sir Osmond has also invited Oliver Witcombe, whom he would prefer to see as her husband. Jennifer is desperate to marry Philip but needs to find a way to do so without upsetting her father.
We do see a kinder side to Sir Osmond when, on Christmas Day, he asks Oliver to dress up in a Santa Klaus costume and distribute gifts to the family and servants. When the old man is discovered shot dead at his desk in the study that same afternoon, all the clues seem to point towards Santa…but why would Oliver want Sir Osmond dead? Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, is brought in to investigate and quickly discovers that almost everyone who spent Christmas at Flaxmere may have had a motive for murder. Could the killer be one of Sir Osmond’s children or one of their partners? What about his pretty young secretary, Grace Portisham, who may be expecting to receive something in his will? Or could it be Ashmore, the family’s old chauffeur, who lost his job at Flaxmere just before Christmas?
Most of the remaining chapters in the book, with one or two exceptions, are narrated by Col. Halstock as he tries to identify the culprit. There’s a lot of discussion of alibis, people’s movements, and the layout of the rooms, so if you enjoy trying to solve those sorts of puzzles – where somebody was at a certain time and what they were doing, or how somebody could have moved from one room to another without being seen – then this is probably the book for you. I didn’t work out who the murderer was, although I had my suspicions, but I did find other parts of the plot easy to predict. As a traditional country house mystery, there wasn’t much that made this book stand out from other books of its genre and era, but as an entertaining and undemanding Christmas read I found it satisfying enough.
Mavis Doriel Hay’s other novels are Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell, both of which I’m now interested in reading.