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16 September 2015

Rambling about Mavis Doriel Hay's The Santa Klaus Murder

Last week, I started to debate what I would read this year for my annual "All Christmas All The Time" read-a-thon starting at Thanksgiving and went to see what NetGalley might have to offer up. I saw two Christmasy offerings from Poisoned Pen Press and was immediately curious. I first heard about PPP and their line of "British Library Crime Classics" thanks to NetGalley. Golden Age mysteries that I had never read -- by authors I had never heard of?!? Consider me sold and requesting! 

Aaaah, the Golden Age. 

Primarily written in the 1920s and 1930s, Golden Age mysteries were typically "whodunnits" featuring a detective and sometimes a sidekick like Poirot had Hastings and Campion had Lugg. Red herrings were prevalent and the tales often featured the upper-class as victims and/or villains. They were the early "cozies" of the mystery genre. I even overheard someone in the library one day explaining that Agatha Christie was "like the grandmother of the cozy." Nothing very gruesome or gory with the crime frequently happening before the narration begins or soon thereafter. 

Ronald Knox, a Golden Age author himself, wrote the following ten rules for the genre in 1929 (copied from Gotham Writers Workshop):
  • The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  • The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  • The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
  • So ... these were the "rules" for the Golden Age. For authors such as Agatha Christie. She, along with Margery Allingham,  Dorothy L Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh were considered to be the "Queens of the Golden Age" but were not by any means the only females writing mysteries at the time. Some others wrote dozens of novels ... some wrote far fewer. Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three between 1934 and 1936.  

    The Santa Klaus Murder was first published in 1936 and takes place at Sir Osmond Melbury's country estate, Flaxmere. Sir Osmond is more than a bit controlling and cantankerous but the entire family and a few guests come home to celebrate Christmas anyway. It was expected of them. (Only one of his four children had ever not done what was expected and has been suffering for it ever since.) 

    Those in attendance for the festivities (aside from the household staff) include:
    * Sir Osmond's sister Mildred, who is an aging gossip who is only happy when being listened to and is quite bitter about replaced in the household's keeping by the pretty young secretary, Grace Portisham
    * Son George, who now runs the family business,  with his uptight wide and their three spoiled children
    * Widowed daughter Hilda and her daughter Carol
    * Daughter Edith and her husband David (no children for them)
    * Daugher Jennifer who still lives at home
    * Philip Cheriton who is in love with Jennifer and vice-versa
    * Oliver Witcomb who is Sir Osmond's choice for Jennifer's future husband

    Sir Osmond had ordered a Santa outfit to be worn by Oliver on Christmas Day for his grandchildren. When it didn't arrive, Grace ordered a new one to be rushed out. Crisis diverted! Happy holidays for all!  Well, as happy as anything ever was at Flaxmere ... Aunt Mildred always said that no good would ever come from having them all together. 

    Aunt Mildred was right. Sir Osmond is found shot in the head in his study. A study, of course, with locked doors and windows.

    The local chief constable, Colonel Halstock, arrives on the scene with his team to investigate. They soon discover that almost everyone in attendance had motive but not means ... and the one guest who may have had the means did not seem to have a motive. The true happenings of Christmas Day are finally discovered by Halstock ... after several missteps and red herrings ... with the help of his team, the suspects themselves, and an actor named Kenneth Stour who happened to be staying nearby (and who also happened to be the former flame of married Edith).

    Out of curiosity, I went through the list of Knox's rules to see if they all fit and he would have been pleased. All of the rules were followed to a T (although I don't at all agree with the "stupid friend of the detective" label so just cross out "stupid," okay?) and it was a delightfully puzzling tale on top of it all. 

    I found myself coming to the end of the book with a bit of dismay knowing that Hay only wrote three and this was the last. There would be no future mentions of whatever happened to this character or that. Luckily, Poisoned Pen Press has already released (or, rather, re-released) her other two books and after how much I enjoyed this one I'll be picking those up soon, I'm sure. Maybe I'll discover that Hay was a rule-breaker and snuck in a Chinaman or two. Maybe even secret twins with supernatural abilities....


    1. I had to laugh at your final thoughts in your review. It would be a nice surprise to find the author broke the rules in one of those other two books. I imagine it is unlikely though. :-)

      I love classic mysteries, although I haven't read too many of them. I read Agatha Christie novels as fast as I could when I was in my late teens and "new" adult years. I keep meaning to revisit her books to see what I think of them now.

      1. Maybe she was blacklisted after writing in an evil twin who communicates with the dead through chopsticks! Or something :)

    2. I'm laughing about the "no Chinamen" rule. :-)