The Santa Klaus Murder
by Mavis Doriel Hay.
British Library Publications
I don’t know why the title of this book spells Santa Claus as Santa Klaus... there is something in there about the English upper class wanting to do right by the Germans in the wake of the first World War but, yeah, I didn’t quite understand the bigoted view of the murder victim in this tome. I’m just addressing this issue here because... I don’t want everyone Direct Messaging me and saying I can’t spell. Apparently it’s one of the versions of this name in common use so that’s good enough for me.
Anyway, my second choice of Christmas book for the season is The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay. It dates from 1936, is the last of three mystery novels written by the author in the 1930s and it’s very much in the Agatha Christie mode of whodunnit fiction. In fact, it’s probably a bad choice for me in some ways because, dealing as it does with a large upper class family in a huge country house squabbling about family politics and ‘how father has divided his fortune in the will’, I have to say I found myself less than sympathetic with any of the characters and, frankly, I didn’t care who did it because they were not the kind of people I would want to spend any time with in the first place.
This also goes, in some ways, for the friend-of-the-family police inspector who is put in charge of the case of the murdered father, who had been found shot in the head in the study during a party on Christmas Day by, it would seem, a man in a Santa Claus... sorry... Santa Klaus, suit. The problem with the Inspector is, although he’s a little more sympathetic than the family, he suffers from the same lack of mental acuity and reasoning which seems to be a curse of a great deal of detectives in novels such as these. That is to say, while he isn’t completely stupid, he does take a long time to recognise clues and opportunities and, in this case, has to be assisted by an amateur detective type, another friend of the family, who is curiously in the back seat when it comes to the ‘main protagonist’ nature of this kind of person in such fiction. Apart from one chapter near the end, we only hear of him from the Inspector, Colonel Halstock, so he’s alluded to more than anything.
When I opened the book I was confronted by a floor plan of the house which, I have to say, I didn’t really need to refer to at all and also a huge great ‘dramatis personae’ (it’s a quite large family Christmas get together) which actually is something which could have come in more useful had I bothered to check it. There are so many names in here to remember but, honestly, I wasn’t that bothered who was who by a little way in.
The story is imparted to the reader in the first person mode but the structure of this one is a little different from some of the usual whodunnit fodder in that the first five chapters are each told by a different character and each deal with a different day’s events, leading up to the last of the five telling the events of Christmas Day, when the central murder takes place. My problem with this portion of the book is that each character seems to assume that the person reading this has acquired accumulated knowledge of events and people from each previous chapter even though, as is revealed later, each character told their story without any knowledge of what anyone else wrote. I’m sorry but in real life you would expect details like nick names etc repeated from person to person, to be explained more than once to the intended reader. All but two of the remaining chapters of the book are told from Colonel Halstock’s point of view and it becomes apparent that the first five chapters are reports from some of the family members which he has asked them to write for him... so my problem about implied knowledge stands... this makes no sense.
A trick the author uses at this point is to make it clear that, when Halstock is giving his reports to the reader over many chapters, he actually hasn’t read the contents of these five chapters himself until a point much later in the book. Which is crazy because, hello, there are a lot of clues, very obvious ones, laid out in those early pages. In fact, most of the book seems to be about people telling the inspector one thing and then coming back in a later chapter to tell him they lied just a little to protect someone else’s honour or dignity (what have you) and the real truth of the matter is... etc. So it does get a bit dull and formulaic for the most part, it has to be said. However, in two chapters near the end, two other characters are given a chapter each but, by this point, it makes no sense that they are talking to the reader and there’s no longer any context given by the author as to why this should be happening.
Now, there are a lot of problems with the story, as I see it, but there are a couple of nice, positive things I can say about it before I get into those. Number one is that the ‘voices’ in which each character speaks to the reader are not completely sharing common traits. They don’t all seem like a mouthpiece for one controlling author, which is a good thing and it’s a mistake so many writers make in their novels when it come to all the characters speaking in the same way. So, while there are similarities, it’s not something which blows the credibility of them as separate characters out of the water. It was refreshing that this was the case.
The other nice thing is the writer occasionally has some very interesting phrasing and uses implication rather than outright stating things sometimes. For instance, this appraisal by Halstock of one of the female characters... “There was something impersonal in her expression, and a tightness of the lips, a recklessness of make-up resulting in crudity, which would have justified a description of her as middle-aged and embittered.” So I found that to be interesting... the way the detective wouldn’t necessarily describe the lady in question by making a judgement on her character, more implying that he could see how people might reach that conclusion themselves. So, yeah, nicely done.
What’s not nicely done is stuff like, for example, after the police surgeon has finished talking to the Inspector about the probable cause of death (in this case a bullet to the head is ruled out as suicide straight away), he then adds “Here’s the report in all the correct language.” As if the writer hadn’t bothered to do the required research herself and tell us what the report says in more thorough terms. I found this a bit odd but, then again, I’m used to reading writers like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs so maybe I’m a bit spoiled in that kind of area.
Another big problem, well kind of, was the usual thing in a murder mystery with this many characters. The reader has no real way of effectively working out who did it from the clues because, frankly, it could have been almost any of the suspects, who almost all have a motive. It’s a bit like a 1970s Italian giallo movie in that respect... an abundance of suspects and no real way of unraveling the puzzle credibly. And, once the murderer has been revealed, it turns out the homicide is both stupidly timed and doesn’t actually gain the perpetrator anything, much to that person’s surprise. However, I was rather taken aback that it’s a minor character we rarely hear of and, frankly, one of only a few characters whose guilt would not inevitably cause a rift in the family relations in any way, shape or form. So the status quo is preserved which, frankly, seems disappointingly tidy and a bit of a cop out. And, yes, I did suspect the murderer early on but then. pretty much every chapter, somebody else seems to be equally culpable for the crime so... well... by that point I didn’t care much at any rate.
The Santa Klaus Murder wouldn’t be my first choice of a good Christmas themed mystery yarn but it is at least an easy, light and somewhat fluffy read and, well, that’s always a welcome thing at Christmas time. I wouldn’t particularly go out of my way to recommend it to anyone except those who thrive on exactly this kind of English, upper class social milieu but, I wouldn’t say don’t bother either because, well, it’s not familiar ground to me so somebody who is more receptive to that stuff might find it delightful. I found it a bit like drinking an under sugared cup of tea in some ways... a quick drink but somebody please get to the biscuits. And I think I’ll leave it at that.