Murder Most Festive: A Christmas Mystery

Written by Ada Moncrieff
Review by Douglas Kemp

England, 1938, and it’s Christmas Eve at the large house Westbury Manor in Sussex, home to Lord and Lady Westbury, who are having their annual house party for the festive season. Their three children are present, bickering and all very different – the louche and arrogant Stephen, who is the heir to the title and property; the eldest, Lydia, still living at home having rejected a number of proposals from eligible suitors; and Edward, a social reformer and bitter critic of aristocratic privilege.  On Christmas morning one of the guests, an old family friend, David Campbell-Scott, who has just returned to England from Malaya having made pots of money in his business dealings, is discovered dead in the snow outside the house, seemingly having shot himself. Some of the family soon suspect that the police constable’s quick conclusion of suicide doesn’t seem quite right. Lydia’s friend and neighbour Hugh Gaveston (aficionado of detective stories and keen to apply his enthusiasm and fiction-learned knowledge to a real-life case) takes the initiative in investigating the death. He discovers, in traditional murder-mystery fashion, that there are number of those present who could indeed want Campbell-Scott dead.

While the story has the classic Golden Age setting – a country house murder and a list of suspects and a range of frankly unlikeable inhabitants and guests – the novel often has the feeling more of a pastiche/satire on the genre. It’s rather like Agatha Christie crashes into Evelyn Waugh, with a dash of loopy P.G. Wodehouse thrown in. The story starts at a hectic, surreal pace, but then calms down into an intriguing and entertaining narrative, an enjoyable read and filled with seasonal fun. The denouement is well plotted, with a twist or two and a conclusion that certainly this reader had not anticipated.