“Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.”
It’s Christmas Eve and at Lexham Manor the family and friends of Nathaniel Herriard are gathering for a Christmas party arranged by the old man’s brother, Joseph. The guests include Nat’s nephew Stephen and his fiancée Valerie, his niece Paula and her playwright friend Willoughby Roydon, a distant cousin, Mathilda Clare, and a business partner, Edgar Mottisfont. Putting up decorations as the snow falls outside, Joseph is looking forward to a good old-fashioned family Christmas. Unfortunately Nat doesn’t like the festive season, doesn’t want to have a party, and finds himself arguing with almost everyone present – which means that when he is found stabbed to death in his room later that evening there are plenty of suspects, all with motives for wanting him dead. The problem, as Inspector Hemingway quickly discovers, is that Nat’s door was locked from the inside. How could the murderer have entered a locked room? What happened to the murder weapon? And where could Aunt Maud’s library book, The Life of the Empress of Austria, have disappeared to?
I have read some of Heyer’s historical novels and loved most of them, but this is the first of her contemporary mysteries I’ve read (contemporary for the time in which they were published, that is – 1941 in this case). I had no idea which one to start with, but when I came across Envious Casca in the library and saw that it was set at Christmas, it seemed the perfect choice for a December read.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book at first. It took me a while to really get into the story and it didn’t help that most of the characters were completely unsympathetic. I have rarely read a novel with so many nasty, rude, unpleasant characters and I couldn’t think of anything worse than being a guest at the Herriards’ party, even without a murder taking place! From the obnoxious, sarcastic Stephen and the haughty butler Sturry to the cantankerous, bad-tempered Nathaniel, they were all so annoying I was surprised only one murder was committed. I did understand, though, that it was vital to the plot that the group of people gathered at the house disliked each other and that there had been so much friction and conflict directly before the murder. The clashing personalities did lead to some very funny conversations and situations too – the scene where everyone assembles in the drawing room to listen to Roydon read his play, for example.
The story really picked up for me after Inspector Hemingway was called in from Scotland Yard. I didn’t find Hemingway a very interesting character in comparison to other fictional detectives and I felt I never really got to know him or anything about his background, but I still enjoyed following his investigations and his discussions with his assistant, Sergeant Ware. I was quite proud of myself because I worked out how the murder was committed long before Hemingway did and my suspicion as to the identity of the murderer was proved to be right too. Luckily this didn’t take away any of the pleasure of reading the book and it was still fun looking out for more clues that might confirm I had the right solution. As a classic locked-room mystery with lots of suspects, red herrings and an English country house setting, it was maybe not a very original novel but the plot was well constructed and interesting. I liked the way the title of the book cleverly relates to the story too (if you don’t know what it means, wait until you’ve read the book before looking it up).
As my first introduction to Heyer’s mysteries, I enjoyed this one and am looking forward to reading the others.