Book Review: The Christmas Murder Game by Alexandra Benedict
If you love word puzzles, then you are in for such a treat with Alexandra Benedict’s latest novel! On top of being a wonderfully constructed classic manor house mystery, The Christmas Murder Game is filled with challenges for the discerning reader, imbuing the book with loads of extra puzzling fun. I freely admit to spending far too much time on the anagram game, and am looking forward to tackling the included word search next now that I’m done with the novel itself.
But even if you’re not a word puzzle fan as I am, there’s so much to enjoy in this very modern murder mystery. Our heroine Lily Armitage was raised by her Aunt Liliana after the shocking death of her mother, Liliana’s beloved older sister Mariana. Liliana’s clear bias towards clever, retiring Lily was a constant source of conflict with Liliana’s eldest child Sara. While Lily got along just fine with Sara’s younger brother Gray, Sara’s loathing was so poisonous that Lily moved away from her aunt’s family as soon as she could, keeping up regularly only with Liliana herself.
After her aunt dies, Lily receives a strange letter asking her to fulfill Liliana’s dying wish and return to the manor home of her childhood to participate in the extended family’s annual Christmas Game. As a child, the game had meant twelve days of solving puzzles that led to a large cache of presents on the final day. This time, the grand prize is ownership of Endgame House itself.
Lily is reluctant to return to the place where she last saw her mother, but her deceased aunt dangles a tantalizing offer in front of her. Liliana promises that if Lily can solve the puzzles she’s devised, the truth of Mariana’s death will also be revealed:
Liliana was as soft as the Medjool dates she loved at Christmas. Lily loved them too, although she never forgot the stone inside.
That bit of stone inside her aunt is what summoned Lily here. It’s cruel, when she thinks of it, to ask her to return to this house, with its secrets written on walls and she’s the one who has to strip back the wallpaper. If Liliana had wanted to expose the truth, she could have done so at any time. Why wait till now? Why leave it up to Lily?
These are only a few of the questions that Lily must find the answers to as she readies herself for a difficult reunion with her cousins. In addition to Sara and Gray, the children of her Uncle Edward are also in attendance and vying for the prize. Tom is a counselor and the only single one of his family: his sister Rachel has brought her spouse Holly, as has youngest brother Ronnie with his wife Phillippa. They are all tended to by the housekeeper Mrs. Castle, after the rules are explained to them by Liliana’s solicitor – and Lily’s childhood friend – Isabelle Sterling.
Everything looks like it’ll be your average family inheritance drama until the first corpse shows up. The survivors try to go for help but find themselves trapped in the remote manor house by the heavy Yorkshire snowfall. As the twelve days of Christmas progress and more and more bodies pile up, Lily will have to put her formidable brain to solving not only the puzzles Liliana set for them, but also to unmasking whom at Endgame House is ruthlessly killing off the assembled members of the Armitage family.
I absolutely gobbled up this mystery novel, going back for seconds over segments any time I missed the anagrams in them on my first pass. I was totally immersed in both puzzles and plot, and rate them all highly in terms of being tough but not so difficult as to be frustrating. I was also both pleased and touched by the subplot regarding Lily’s bisexuality, especially by the elucidation of her feelings when being slighted on the subject by one of her relatives:
Lily feels sliced like salmon. She opens her mouth to say all those phrases that come late at night but they are stuck, itching at her throat. She never can say anything whenever someone comments or threatens violence in the street when she’s holding hands with or kissing a woman. Or when she’s with a man and assumed to be straight, leaving her privileged and safer, yet erased. Speaking up is beyond her.
Non-stereotypical bisexuality representation has been a growing and important trend in other genres; it’s nice to see the orientation finally appear in a mystery novel as something more than a plot twist or reason for shame. It adds social depth to an already absorbing mystery and puzzle book that’s the perfect gift for the armchair detective in your life (yourself included!).