The Santa Klaus Murder is a classic Golden Age murder mystery, right down to the plan of the house & list of characters at the beginning. It’s even set in a country house at Christmas. All that’s missing is snow as it’s a mild winter.The British Library have recently reprinted all three of Mavis Doriel Hay’s mysteries written in the 1930s. I reviewed Death on the Cherwell here & I have Murder Underground on the tbr pile.
Sir Oswald Melbury is the kind of man who keeps his family on their toes. He is a widower with a son & four daughters, all of whom are more or less under his thumb & resent the fact. George is married with three children. Hilda has been left a widow, not very well off, with a daughter, Carol, who wants to study as an architect but can’t afford the training. Edith wanted to marry a young actor, Kenneth Stour, but her father disapproved & she married his choice instead, Sir David Evershot, a difficult man who suffered shell shock in the war & may have hereditary insanity in his family. Eleanor is reasonably happily married with two children.
Jennifer, the youngest daughter, is the only one still at home with her father. She wants to marry Philip Cheriton, a young man with prospects but not much money. Sir Oswald disapproves & threatens to change his will if Jennifer marries without consent. He favours another suitor, Oliver Witcomb. All these people are spending Christmas at Flaxmere, more or less reluctantly. Sir Oswald’s secretary, Grace Portisham, is also one of the party. The children are suspicious of Grace & her influence on their father. The final guest is Sir Oswald’s sister, Mildred, who was displaced by Grace & hates her for it. Most of the servants have been at Flaxmere for many years. The exception is the new chauffeur, Bingham, who replaced faithful Ashmere who was pensioned off when a new car was bought.
Sir Oswald has planned a surprise for his grandchildren – Santa Klaus will deliver their presents in person on Christmas Day. To that end, he has ordered a costume to be sent out & told Oliver Witcomb that he will be playing the role. when the costume hasn’t arrived two days before Christmas, a second costume must be found at short notice. On Christmas Day, Sir Oswald retires to his study to wait for a phone call. When Oliver, in costume as Santa Klaus, enters the study for further instructions, he discovers Sir Oswald dead at his desk, shot in the head. No one seems to have heard the shot because Santa Klaus was handing out crackers to the children at the time. However, Oliver is adamant that he had no crackers & wasn’t in the hall when they were given out. At first, the police don’t believe him as there are many witnesses to the fact but when the possible existence of a second costume is revealed, the mystery deepens although it also leads to Oliver becoming the main suspect.
The Chief Constable, Colonel Halstock, takes charge of the investigation. Most of the story is told from his viewpoint & he’s assisted by local Inspector Rousdon & also by Kenneth Stour, the former suitor of Edith who happens to be staying with friends nearby. Sir Oswald was an unpleasant old man but the real motive for his murder seems to be the existence of notes for a new will that he was working on. All his children want to know what’s in the will & some of them may know or suspect that he planned to change it. The scene on Christmas Day was chaotic & several people were absent for different periods of time. The family are all very good at fudging the truth or just lying outright & Colonel Halstock has a frustrating time sifting through the clues until he reaches the only possible solution.
The Santa Klaus Murder is a traditional mystery in the classic tradition. Kenneth Stour is a refreshing addition to the investigation as he energetically assists the Colonel & encourages several members of the party to write down their memories of the days leading up to Christmas. This also helps the reader to set the scene & sort through a large cast of characters. I enjoyed reading it very much & I hope that the British Library keep rediscovering these Golden Age gems & presenting them to a new audience.