06 December 2013
A good murder for Christmas?
By Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction
Until a few weeks ago, the only book of the detective story writer Mavis Doriel Hay you could buy was not a murder mystery, but her contribution to a learned series of studies of rural industries in Britain in the 1920s. Osier-growing and basket-weaving is indeed a fascinating book, and something of a collectors’ item on antiquarian book websites, but not what most people would choose for a spot of Christmas criminal escapism.
Her three detective novels of 1934 to 1936 are a rather different matter. The Santa Klaus Murder of 1936, just republished as the latest instalment in the “British Library Crime Classics” series, is a perfect example of the detective story as puzzle, a genre which reached its zenith in the years between the two World Wars. Sir Osmond Melbury – as selfish and unpleasant as he is rich – is found shot dead in the library of his country house on Christmas Day. Naturally every single member of the house party - except the one who actually found the dead body, of course - had some reason for wishing Sir Oswald dead, and the library is locked and shuttered from the inside.
The novel begins with not only the traditional detailed floor plan of the house but a cast of characters – just as well, for there are nearly two dozen, including a handsome and ambitious housekeeper/secretary, two rival suitors for the youngest Melbury daughter, and Sir Oswald’s sons-in-law, Gordon Strickland, whose business may (or may not) be in trouble, and Sir David Evershot, a man still struggling with the effects of shell-shock from his war service. The author does not disguise how strange and difficult his behaviour can seem to others, and deals sensitively with his problems and those of his wife Edith, the middle sister of the family.
The Santa Klaus Mystery was the author’s third and last novel. She had written two others: Murder Underground (1934) and Death on the Cherwell (1935). Murder Underground, in which an unpopular old lady is found strangled on the deep spiral staircase of Belsize Park tube station, was well-reviewed at the time by as notable a writer as Dorothy L. Sayers, while Death on the Cherwell shares the setting of Sayers’s Gaudy Night, a fictional women’s college in Oxford. In Hay’s book, a group of students from Persephone College set out for a meeting by the river only to find their Bursar in her canoe – dead. To find out who killed the old lady in BelsizePark and the Bursar in Oxford, you will have to wait until summer 2014, when these two novels will also be published in the “Crime Classics” series.