by Georgette Heyer
'Tis the season-to be dead...
A holiday party takes on a sinister aspect when the colorful assortment of guests discovers there is a killer in their midst. The owner of the substantial estate, that old Scrooge Nathaniel Herriard, is found stabbed in the back. While the delicate matter of inheritance could be the key to this crime, the real conundrum is how any of the suspects could have entered a locked room to commit the foul deed.
For Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, the investigation is complicated by the fact that every guest is hiding something-throwing all of their testimony into question and casting suspicion far and wide. The clever and daring crime will mystify readers, yet the answer is in plain sight all along...
I found this to be just what I'd expected from one of Georgette Heyer's mysteries-- a light, entertaining murder mystery with some nice comic touches and the requisite "on-the-side" love story. Though I didn't know the "how" until just about when it was revealed, I figured out the "who" and "why" fairly early in the book, but that didn't ruin the reading experience. Many of the characters aren't especially likeable-- but that just makes it easier to enjoy the biting things they say to one another.
Random Specifics (with the occasional SPOILER):
-- I had no idea what the title meant, so when the book ended with no explanation, I had to look it up. And I read Julius Ceasar in high school, too! Oh well.
-- I didn't realize this was set at Christmastime. (Obviously hadn't read the blurb.) It was a bit jarring, at first. (I'm longing for autumn to finally settle in for good-- far too early to think of Christmas celebrations, yet!)
-- "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 a wornout convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather."
-- A few different times through the book, a character's manner of speech was described as "vulgar"-- and sometimes I don't quite see the vulgarity... For example, someone makes an obvious statement, and: "'You don't say!' remarked Miss Clare vulgarly." What was so vulgar about that? (Incidentally, the word "vulgar" itself feels vulgar-- just plain gross-- to me.)
-- "It was not Nathaniel's custom to keep late hours, nor was he the kind of person who altered his habits to suit the convenience of his guests."
-- "She supposed adolescent boys were kittle-cattle: people said they were." Had to look up "kittle-cattle". Capricious, touchy, etc.
-- Those darned "steps" (step-ladder) are mentioned so frequently that you just know they're going to figure into the murder, somehow-- though I admit I suspected something much more straightforward, such as that someone would "accidentally" leave them where Nathaniel would be sure to trip over them and break his neck. Ditto The Life of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (or whatever it was called). ...The part about its repeated mention being significant, I mean-- not that someone would trip over it and die. ;o)
-- "At no time fond of being read to..." Ha! I don't love being read to, either. I'm coming to enjoy audio books a little more than I used to, but I still find that my mind tends to wander. It's funny, because as a child I loved it when our teachers would read to us for a while after lunch... and I really enjoy reading aloud, myself, if the book is good. I just have a hard time focusing when someone else is reading, these days. I prefer to see the words on the page.
-- When Mathilda spills tea on her dress and Stephen tosses her his handkerchief, Valerie says "tea stains things absolutely fatally". Mathilda responds that it won't stain if you rub hard enough, and proceeds to do so, to which Valerie replies that she was thinking of Stephen's hanky. I laughed and laughed. ...Maybe you had to be there...
-- Hey, Mathilda's a plain heroine-type-character! (The nearest thing to a heroine in this book, at least.) Of course, she devotes a great deal of attention to her dress, to overcome her lack of beauty, but still. I appreciate an unbeautiful character-- especially when she's not an object of pity.
-- Maybe it was partially just that I was reading on the treadmill and could have been woozy from the exercise ;o), but the whole "play-reading" scene was hilarious. The best part of the book, by far.
-- Before the reading of the play: "Stephen held out a plate of small cakes. 'Take one. Always fortify yourself against coming ordeals.'"
-- Nathaniel: "'I can judge your play without your assistance. Seen more good, bad, and indifferent plays in my time than you've ever dreamt of.' He rounded suddenly on Roydon. 'What category does yours come into?'"
-- "'I don't write problems,' said Roydon, in rather too high a voice. 'And enjoyment is the last thing I expect anyone to feel! If I've succeeded in making you think, I shall be satisfied.' 'A noble ideal,' commented Stephen. 'But you shouldn't say it as though you thought it unattainable. Not polite.'"
-- Roydon is setting the scene for the first act... "'The carpet is threadbare, and the wallpaper, which is flowered in a design of roses in trellis-work tied up with blue ribbons, is stained in several places.' 'Stained with what?' asked Stephen. Roydon, who had never considered this point, glared at him, and said: 'Does it matter?' 'Not to me, but if it's blood you ought to say so, and then my betrothed can make an excuse to go away. She's squeamish.' 'Well, it isn't! I don't write that kind of play. The wallpaper is just stained.' 'I expect it was from damp,' suggested Maud. 'It sounds as though it would be a damp sort of place.' Stephen turned his mocking gaze upon her, and said: 'You shouldn't say that, Aunt. After all, we haven't heard enough to judge yet.'"
-- More scene-setting: "'A tawdry doll leans drunkenly on the dressing-table; and a pair of soiled pink corsets are flung across the only armchair.' He looked round in a challenging kind of way as he enunciated this, and appeared to wait for comment. 'Ah yes, I see!' said Joseph, with a deprecating glance at the assembled company. 'You wish to convey an atmosphere of sordidness.' 'Quite, quite!' said Mottisfont, coughing. 'And let us admit freely that you have succeeded,' said Stephen cordially. 'I always think there's something frightfully sordid about corsets, don't you?' said Valerie. 'Those satin ones, I mean, with millions of bones and laces and things. Of course, nowadays one simply wears an elastic belt, if one wears anything at all, which generally one doesn't.' 'You'll come to it, my girl,' prophesied Mathilda."
-- Still setting the scene: "'Lucetta May is discovered, seated before her dressing table. She is wearing a shoddy pink negligee, which imperfectly conceals--' 'Careful!' Stephen warned him. 'It is grimy round the edge, and the lace is torn!' said Roydon defiantly."
-- Maud, after interrupting by wandering around the room in search of her knitting, asks Roydon to continue reading. "'So interesting! It quite takes one back.' Stephen, who had joined Mathilda in the search for the knitting, remarked, sotto voce, that he had always wondered where Joe had picked Maude up, and now he knew." (The play is set in a brothel, I think... or at least the main character is a prostitute.)
-- I don't get why everyone is so dead set against playing games in this book... No-one is interested in charades or... something called "clumps". More than once, I was thinking, "Hey, that sounds like fun!"-- but no, the "cool people" in the books all act as though the thought of playing a game (other than billiards) is horrible. I just don't get the (apparently common) dislike of party games in general. What else are you going to do, when you're compelled to spend a significant length of time in a room with a group of people? Sit around and talk the whole time? Chit-chat is fine for a little while, but eventually it becomes boring. (Maybe I'm just not good at it...) At least games mix things up a little.
-- More about the play read-aloud: "'This Roydon fellow seems to have read the thing aloud to him yesterday afternoon, and Nat lost his temper over it, and there was a general sort of row. Well, I'm a fair-minded man, and, after all, you can't be surprised, can you? I mean, coming down to stay with a man, and then reading stuff aloud to him! Never heard of such a thing!'"
-- The man from Scotland Yard bemoans the fact that "with all these thrillers that get written nowadays by people who ought to know better than to go putting ideas into criminals' heads, there's no chance of any murderer forgetting to wipe off his finger-prints. Sickening, I call it." Funny, when you consider that the person writing this was herself one of those "people who ought to know better". So they were saying things like that even back then? I seem to remember similar complaints about C.S.I., back in its earlier years...
-- "'I always go to church on Christmas Day,' replied Maud. 'And on Sundays, too.' 'One had not realised that there were still people who did!' said Roydon, with the air of one interested in the habits of aborigines."
-- "'You must forgive a mother's foolish heart if I say that I can't help wishing that this hadn't happened!' 'I know, and I understand,' said Joseph earnestly. 'If only my Val had not been in the house!' said Mrs. Dean, apparently stating her only objection to the murder."
-- "Musquash"-- muskrat, or muskrat fur, evidently.
-- "Oustiti"-- a tool for locking or unlocking a door from the outside (without the key). Context clues made this one obvious, but it was still a new (and odd) word for me.
-- "'Of course, there must not be anything rowdy, but I know some very good paper-games which I know you young people will enjoy.' This suggestion smote everyone dumb with dismay. Paula was the first to recover the power of speech, and said, with her customary forthrightness: 'I abominate paper-games!' 'Lots of people say that to begin with,' said Mrs. Dean, 'but they always join in in the end.'" I'm not sure what a "paper-game" is... but judging by the reactions, it's something truly awful.
-- "'Did your nerve fail you?' he asked. 'Badly. She behaves like a professional hostess at a hydro.'" I see that "hydro" is British slang for "an establishment offering hydropathic treatment (as for weight loss)"-- or a health spa. Hm.
-- "'Let it be understood, Stephen, that if there are to be Quiet Games I shall go to bed with a headache!'" Wow, these people really loathe party games...
-- "'You talk as though Black Maria was at the door, but I maintain that the police haven't got enough evidence even to detain you.'" "Black Maria" is slang for the police van used to transport prisoners. (Learning lots of new words/terms today!)
-- "But Sturry, when informed that Inspector Hemingway had need, for unspecified reasons, of a ladder, was not helpful. He said that he regretted there was nothing of that nature in the house. His tone did not imply regret, but rather an unexplained contempt of ladders." Ah, the uptight, snobbish butler! Where would light drawing-room mysteries be without him? Comedy gold!
-- The moment when Mathilda's recounting her version of events one final time-- and realizes that even as she laughed when Nathaniel slammed his bedroom door, he had already been struck a deathblow... Her horror in that knowledge gives us the most emotional, grim moment in the book. These types of mysteries don't usually dwell too much on the fact that, um, someone was just murdered in their vicinity-- the loss of the victim-- recognition of mortality-- "ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"-- etc. I guess they can't, without becoming much more serious in tone. Still, a little human sympathy and acknowledgement of the loss of (fictional) life is nice. I appreciated it.
-- The actual murder itself struck me as incredibly improbable. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems tricky to aim the knife so that you can be reasonably sure that the victim won't notice he's been stabbed (even if he does suffer from lumbago) and/or visibly bleed before he gets to his room, notice that fact, and call out for help, which isn't very far away. Even if you've "researched" the subject, it's not the kind of thing you can easily practice. Basically, it seems like Joseph was running unnecessary risks.
-- I suppose that having Joseph apprehended "off stage" keeps things light, but it feels a little of a let-down...
-- What is up with Maud? She's such a strange character!