Thursday, 11 December 2014

Vintage crime for Christmas

Short of a stocking filler? Here's something I think any fan of crime novels will enjoy: The Santa Klaus Murder, by Mavis Doriel Hay. The Melbury family have all gathered together for Christmas, when the elderly head of the household is murdered. But who did it? Could it be the youngest daughter, who is forbidden to get married and leave home, or her fiance? Could it be the unhappily-married daughter, her shell-shocked husband or the man she wanted to marry all those years ago? How about the secretary? There are plenty of people who could have killed the victim – he wasn't a pleasant chap. In fact, this story is definitely a 'whodunnit'. You'll probably guess a good deal of how the crime was carried out very early on, but working out which person actually did the deed is much trickier, making this a very enjoyable read.



Sadly, Mystery in White is not up to the same standard. I've reviewed plenty of books in the British Library's series of reissued crime novels, mostly from the 1930s. (Death on the Cherwell, The Cornish Coast Murder and The Lake District Murder) This volume suffers from some of the same problems as many of the others: beautiful young people who couldn't possibly be criminal because they are beautiful and young and rampant snobbery (the showgirl with her working-class roots simply cannot be as pretty as either of the posh girls, and one man is clearly a bad lot simply because he is 'common').

The story is intriguing enough, with a party of travellers from a snowbound train seeking refuge in a deserted, yet fully-stocked, country house, with a frozen body in the grounds, but it doesn't have much depth. That's where the Doriel Hay volume stands out; it explores characters and their motives more, and while there is snobbery, the relations between the classes are at least explored more and the working-class characters mostly seen as real people with real lives and problems, not simply as somehow less valid, less human. Moreover, the setting for the Doriel Hay story rings true, whereas Jefferson Farjeon's seems horribly false – to the point where all the characters keep going on about how unbelievable their situation is; presumably the author's attempt to head off any criticisms from the reader.

So: get The Santa Klaus Murder. It's great (and the British Library is selling it for a reduced price). The other one's fairly forgettable.

Have you got any books on your Christmas wish list? I've got Christopher Fowler's most recent Bryant and May novel on mine, Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart – if you like London and/or crime novels, you really should read that series. All London's secret places, its forgotten stories and quirky facets, are in them. The whole series is begging to be televised. (Co-incidentally, he's just done a blog post on that very subject. Weird!) Anyway, that and a box of chocs and a big cup of tea would also be a perfect way to spend Christmas Day afternoon...

4 comments :

  1. Ooh, might have to get The Santa Claus Murder, it sounds fab. I ordered a whole bunch of British Library crime series novels after reading your last post about them. Can't wait to get stuck in! Thanks Mim.

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    1. The thing that really struck me was the presence of the war. Frequently cases of shell-shock creep in. You don't see it so much in films, but you really feel the echoes of WWI in the books, and it does illuminate the desire to avoid war if in any way possible in the run-up to WWII.

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  2. I nearly got the Mystery in White the other day, I was seduced by the cover. The Santa Claus Murder sounds really good.

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    1. Santa Klaus is definitely the better of the two. That and 'A Scream in Soho' are my favourites of the ones I've read.

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