Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder is a traditional country house murder mystery–so that means a limited number of suspects, but in the case of this novel there are multiple narrators as various characters give their versions of events.
It’s 1935, another Christmas gathering at Flaxmere, the country estate of the indomitable Sir Osmond Melbury–a man who rules his large family with an iron hand. Now aged and infirm after a stroke, Sir Melbury is no less formidable. He has five children–four daughters and a son along with various in-laws and grandchildren. Everyone descends on Flaxmere once again for the traditional Christmas holiday.
Sir Osmond’s sister, his former housekeeper, Aunt Mildred is convinced that no good can possibly result from confining the family members together under one roof, and she’s proved right when her brother is found dead in his study. In terms of the family fortunes, this is a delicate time, and everyone stands to benefit from the old man’s death in some way. His youngest daughter Jennifer wants to marry Philip Cheriton, the man she loves, while her father pushes and actually invites another suitor for Christmas, Oliver Witcombe. It’s a sign of Sir Osmond’s character that he invites Witcombe for Christmas as not only is this a blatant declaration of the fact he’s ignoring Jennifer’s feelings but it’s also an indication of how he thrives on tension and the awkward, “strained,” atmopshere. Jennifer, engaged now for several months, plans to defy her father even though this would mean that she’d be cut from the will. Then there’s the eldest daughter, Hilda, who defied her father and married an artist for love years ago, and now she’s a widow, living in meagre circumstances, with a grown daughter who needs a university education. In contrast to Hilda, Edith, Sir Osmond’s second daughter, abandoned the man she loved in order to please her father by marrying Sir David Evershot. The couple have no children and this may be explained by the rumours of hereditary madness in Sir David’s family.
To complicate matters, Sir Osmond has an eminently efficient and attractive secretary and housekeeper: Miss Grace Portisham. Several of Sir Osmond’s children are concerned that their father could change the will in his housekeeper’s favour. She has slowly and silently made changes at Flaxmere–changes some of the children, Edith, Eleanor, and George, “like birds of prey,” resent:
They found, too, that rooms had been done up in new color schemes and there were various innovations in household organization. Edith expressed her disapproval of the changes and hinted at a lack of good taste. Always Sir Osmond poo-poohed her criticism, boasted how economically everything had been done, and lauded Miss Portisham.
Edith and Eleanor and George became increasingly anxious about Grace Portisham. She was a schemer–and how far was she prepared to go? They would gladly have seized any opportunity to discredit her, but she was so discreet, so tactful, that she seemed invulnerable. Each Christmas they arrived in a greater state of anxiety unalloyed by the obvious facts that Miss Portisham greatly increased the comfort of life at Flaxmere and was never seen by anyone to presume above her station.
There’s a crisis looming at Flaxmere; Jennifer’s older siblings want her to remain there and keep an eye on Miss Portisham, nicknamed, “the portent,” but Jennifer plans to marry her fiancé and leave, financial consequences be damned. Will Miss Portisham ‘take over’ Flaxmere? Is it possible that Sir Osmond might consider marriage to Miss Portisham? Of course all of these concerns end, abruptly, when Sir Osmond is murdered.
Sir Osmond isn’t a particularly nice person, and there’s the sense that he squashes independent action in his children. Jennifer is devoted to the Women’s Institutes, “but these activities were hampered by Sir Osmond, who disapproved of what he considered the Bolshevist tendencies of the movement.” Consequently, Jennifer has learned to keep “her real opinions and interests to herself.” Jennifer’s fiancé, Cheriton, says Sir Osmond “had a genius for awkwardness, I would back him to arouse envy, hatred, and uncharitableness in any perfectly harmonious party of people in less than twenty-four hours” :
He always seemed to thrive on the atmosphere of distrust and discomfort which he had such a knack of creating and although the Melbury family was riddled with feuds and jealousies, these were always conducted in a polite manner, with sarcasm and innuendo but never a healthy row.
The chapters told from the viewpoints of various guests are a nice twist and author Mavis Doriel Hay manages to convey a different tone to each of these chapters as they pave the way to the crime. Philip Cheriton’s chatty account gives a nice history of the family and various relationships, and this is in wonderful contrast to Aunt Mildred’s fussy, critical narrative. We see that stubbornness runs in the Melbury blood, for Aunt Mildred, who helped steer most of the Melbury children towards ‘suitable’ marriages, now sees the consequences of her work but refuses to admit that perhaps she was wrong.
There’s a clue thrown out very early in the book which signals the solution, and while The Santa Klaus Murder has nothing new to offer to the genre, it is an enjoyable, seasonal read.
The book comes complete with a plan of the ground floor of Flaxmere House and a cast of characters.
Review copy. This is another British Library Crime Classic from Poisoned Pen Press.
The Santa Klaus Murder was also reviewed by Ali of Heavenali