Wouldn't it be lovely if Hallmark actually told the truth about the holiday season?
Sure, it would be great if every family get-together was full of warmth, good cheer, and high spirits. If the only problem was running out of eggnog and the only arguing was over who was going to hand out the presents after dinner.
Unfortunately for a lot of us Scrooges, the holidays aren't nearly so saccharine and tingly. Instead of jingle bells, there's screaming children, politics-fueled war over the candied yams, and a general sense that the time would have been better spent in bed at home, alone, our sole company a bottle of wine.
It's no real wonder, then, why murder mysteries set during the Yuletide are so appealing. Where better to find a body than under the Christmas tree, in a house packed full of resentment, frayed feelings, and bow-bedazzled gifts? Murder tends to occur close to home, after all, and a forced gathering of disjointed family members provides a jolly pool of suspects.
In Georgette Heyer's newly re-printed classic, A Christmas Party (previously entitled Envious Casca), a festive family party goes horribly awry when the host, a cantankerous curmudgeon named Nathaniel Herriard—a man who would've given Ebenezer a run for his money—is found stabbed to death.
In a locked room, no less.
Given that the extremely wealthy old man hated nearly everyone gathered and had sharp words with most of them in the hours leading up to his death, Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard isn't wanting for suspects or motive.
What he is wanting for is A) the exact means, given the seeming impossibility of the murder, and B) some peace and quiet, as the suspects are a loud, whiny, and cross-grained bunch almost to a (wo)man.
The surliest of the bunch is the prime suspect: the old man's nephew, Stephen. Everyone at the party knew Stephen stood to inherit and was Nathaniel's favorite, for all that they bickered like cats and dogs.
Then, there's Stephen's sister, Paula, an actress desperate to get funding for her latest pet project, a play written by the frantic Roydon. The party is an altogether dramatic one, in fact, as suspects #4 and #5 are Nathaniel's ex-actor brother, Joseph—who put the party together in the first place and goes out of his way to be kind to everyone, whether they want him to or not—and ex-actress sister-in-law, Maud, whose defining characteristic is an obsession with a biography about Empress Elizabeth of Austria.
Nathaniel's business partner, Mottisfont, had very angry words with the victim in the days leading up to his murder; seems Mottisfont had done something expressly against Nat's wishes. Stephen's ditzy fiancée, Valerie Dean, is a gold-digger Nathaniel disapproved of. And rounding out the party is distant family cousin Matilda, a plain but well-dressed lady who likes Stephen despite his rude and callous behavior with everyone else.
It's definitely a sticky wicket all around—simultaneously a manor house comedy of (ill) manners and a locked-room whodunit. Heyer balances utterly outrageous characters prone to ridiculous dialogue with a baffling head-scratcher of a mystery, leading the audience and Inspector Hemingway on a merry chase.
“You haven't really told the Inspector to look for your book, have you?” Matilda asked.
“After all, dear,” said Maud mildly, “it is a detective's business to look for things.”
“My dear, you shouldn't have taken up the Inspector's time with such a trivial matter!” said Joseph, a little shocked. “You must remember that he is engaged on far, far more important work.”
Maud was unimpressed. Seating herself in her accustomed chair by the fire, she said: “I do not think it will do anyone any good to know who killed Nat, Joe, for as he is dead there is nothing to be done about it, and it will only create a great deal of unpleasantness to pry into the affair. Like Hamlet,” she added. “Simply upsetting things. But the Life of the Empress of Austria belongs to the lending library, and if it is lost I shall be obliged to pay for it. Besides, I hadn't finished it.”
Muddying the waters further is the revelation that Nathaniel had a will—which seems to be damning evidence against a couple of the suspects—but it may not be a valid one. Bloody handkerchiefs and monogrammed cigarette cases are found where they shouldn't be. Someone tried to burn something in the garden incinerator.
Could a murderer have climbed into the victim's room via a ventilation window? The snooty butler has been listening in at doorways, and the deadly weapon came from the deceased's own billiards room. Engagements are made and broken, and an interfering mother swoops down upon the party before anyone can escape.
All of the high emotions and back-biting certainly gives one perspective on their own family gatherings…
“…You want to know who killed your brother, don't you?” said Hemingway reasonably.
Joseph threw him a wan smile. “Alas, it isn't as simple as that, Inspector! Part of me yearns to bring my brother's murderer to justice; but the other part—the incurably sentimental, foolish part!—dreads the inevitable discovery! You assure me that the murder was committed by someone staying in the house. Consider what frightful possibilities this must imply! The servants? I cannot think it. My nephew? My niece? The very thought revolts one! A lifelong friend, then? An innocent child, hardly out of the schoolroom? Or an unfortunate young playwright, struggling gallantly to fulfill his destiny? How can I want any of these to be found guilty of murder? Ah, you think me a muddleheaded old fool! I pray for your sake you may never go through the mental torment I writhe under now!”
The Inspector fully appreciated the fine delivery of these lines, but he was shrewd enough to realize that with the slightest encouragement Joseph would turn a police investigation into a drama centered about his own ebullient personality, and he took a firm line at once, saying prosaically: “Well, that's very kind of you, sir, I'm sure.”
Heyer is best known for her Regency romances, but she dabbled frequently in mysteries inspired by her barrister husband's cases. With A Christmas Party, she delivered both humor and malicious intent in equal portions. The characters see-saw between hilarious and infuriating, and the climactic reveal is somehow both surprising and obvious—proof that both party games and murder are more fun when they're complicated.
Plus, it's rather cathartic to read about someone knocking off an unpleasant relative/guest. Consider it a safer alternative to throttling one of your own over the dinner table this holiday season.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.