Monday, 11 November 2013

The Santa Klaus Murder

Ever heard of the crime writer Mavis Doriel Hay? Neither had I until I received a review copy of a book she published in 1936 and which has just been reprinted by the British Library, as part of its rather exciting programme to make available again some very rare crime stories from the Victorian era and also the Golden Age between the wars.

The Santa Klaus Murder is one of three novels she published, although she also wrote non-fiction on the subject of rural handicrafts. On the evidence of this novel, I'm guessing that she enjoyed the conventions of the Golden Age and in the post-war era did not feel tempted to return to the idea of game-playing mysteries. But I'm guessing, as I know very little about her.

So what of The Santa Klaus Murder? The first thing to say is that it's a nicely produced book, as you'd expect from the British Library. And it also ticks a number of Golden Age boxes - the setting is Flaxmere, a country house, a floor plan is provided, and a Chief Constable is heavily involved in the detective work in the way typical of the period (think J.J. Connington in particular) but would now seem rather extraordinary.

One very strong positive about the book is that the story is told from multiple points of view, almost like The Moonstone, though the Chief Constable's perspective predominates once murder is done. The victim is Sir Osmond Melbury, the wealthy patriarch. Agatha Christie had a similar victim in a Yuletide mystery that post-dates this one, Hercule Poirot's Christmas. Each member of the large cast of characters has a motive for murder, and my one reservation about the book is that there are too many people, so that focus blurs after the crime is committed, with too much space is devoted to the question of means and opportunity. But Hay could write, and her other two novels are to be published by the British Library next year.

Sir Osmond has proposed to change his will - a Golden Age stand-by - and of course this impacts on motive, and a fragment of a piece of paper about the legacies is again included, another element that you just don't find that often in modern books, but which is the sort of device that Christie used to love to play with. Overall, I found this an enjoyable novel, and the familiar ingredients are lifted out of the ordinary by a pleasing touch of humour. Mavis Doriel Hay may not have made a great name for herself in the genre, but this book shows that she does not deserve to be forgotten. A nice Christmas gift for a Golden Age fan.


J F Norris said...

I got a copy of this and tore through it probably at the exact same time you were reading your copy! I finished it Friday afternoon and have a review planned for next week. It was engaging and lively and rather clever. I was rather proud of having picked up on some of her more subtle clues though I came up short in naming the murderer. However, the most memorable parts of the book turned out to be Hay's minor characters. The depiction of the shell shocked husband of Edith and Edith herself were two of the more complex and surprising characters in the story.

News is that the British Library who had been unearthing and reprinting Victorian rarities like THE NOTTING HILL MYSTERY and THE FEMALE DETECTIVE is now turning to reprinting Golden Age mysteries. Next year they will release Hay's other two mysteries along with two by the rarely discussed and rather prolific mystery writer John Bude.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm really glad you liked it, John. More about the British Library books here soon.