I like to read Christmas-themed mysteries at Christmas & I planned to read Envious Casca last Christmas. However, I didn’t get to it, I read J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White instead. I’m not sure what made me pick up Envious Casca last week & make it my lunchtime book, but I did. It’s a well-plotted murder mystery with the requisite nasty victim & cast of plausible suspects & I enjoyed it very much.
Nathaniel Herriard is a rich but miserable man. He lives at Lexham Manor with his brother, Joseph & his wife, Maud. Joseph is an out-of-work actor who loves to talk about his great roles but was really only ever a character actor. Maud is quiet & colourless, her only enthusiasm is her love of reading royal biographies, the more romantic & tragic the life, the more she enjoys it. Joseph has decided to bring the family together for Christmas, against Nathaniel’s wishes as he hates Christmas. Nat & Joseph’s nephew, Stephen & his sister, Paula are invited. Stephen is presumed to be his uncle’s heir but the two have an abrasive relationship. Stephen has just become engaged to pretty, empty-headed Valerie Dean, a young woman that Nat has taken an instant dislike to. Paula is an actress & is desperate to borrow money from her uncle to put on a play written by Willoughby Roydon, a young man who writes serious plays about the sordid underbelly of modern life. Unsurprisingly none of his plays have been produced. Paula is excited about his new play because he’s written a perfect part for herself. Nat’s business partner, Edgar Mottisfont & Mathilda Clare, a cousin of the Herriads, make up the party.
Despite Joseph’s desire to keep the party on an even keel, the cracks soon begin to appear. The guests arrive on Christmas Eve &, almost immediately, Nathaniel is rude to Valerie, who dislikes the house & its atmosphere. Stephen seems to be having second thoughts about his engagement anyway as he’s rude to Valerie & abrasive with his uncle. Paula pushes everyone into hearing Roydon read his play & is then upset when Nathaniel is offended by the content. It seems it won’t be so easy to get the money from Nathaniel & Roydon is upset because Paula had told him she would get the money as her inheritance so why shouldn’t she have it now? Unfortunately she hadn’t taken her uncle’s disposition into account. Nathaniel has a meeting with Edgar Mottisfont which leaves Edgar furious & frightened. Then, Maud’s copy of The Life of the Empress Elizabeth goes missing & Joseph & Mathilda have a hard time keeping the peace.
When the party assemble for dinner on Christmas Eve, they’re all upset or angry to some degree. When Nathaniel doesn’t appear, Joseph & Ford, the valet, go up to his room. The door’s locked &, after calling Stephen to help, they break in, finding Nathaniel dead on the floor. It soon becomes apparent that he’s been stabbed in the back. However, the door & windows were all locked &, apart from a tiny window in the bathroom, there seems no way a murderer could have escaped. The local police are called & then Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard arrives to take over the baffling case.
Envious Casca is a very good mystery, with almost everyone in the house party having a motive. As Inspector Hemingway puts it, “Here I’ve got no fewer than four hot suspects, and three possibles, all without alibis, and most of them with life-size motives, and I’m damned if I see my way to bringing it home to any of them.” The locked room & the absence of a weapon is another twist in the tale. None of the house guests is particularly sympathetic, although I did like Mathilda Clare, a plain (or ugly, as Valerie Dean keeps emphasizing) thirtyish spinster with a dry sense of humour. I got to the solution ahead of the detectives but it was more to do with my knowledge of history than spotting any other clues. I liked Inspector Hemingway, he’s intelligent & clever at choosing the right manner when questioning his suspects, from flirting with Valerie Dean to refusing to take umbrage when the very superior butler Sturry (who tends to speak in Capital Letters) turns his nose up at the police & sees the murder as a personal affront.
According to Jennifer Kloester’s biography of Heyer, she had a very hard time writing the book, which was originally called Christmas Party. It was 1940, her brother-in-law was killed in action in May & she was upset & preoccupied by the news of the war. She had also just published The Spanish Bride & was worried by the opinion of some readers (including her mother) that her regular readers wouldn’t enjoy it as much as her usual, lighter, books. She also felt that the subject matter – another European war, even though it was over a hundred years earlier – was ill-timed. Every time she tried to work on the mystery, she wanted to be writing a light romance instead. I also loved the anecdote in the biography that, after trying various titles for the book, she thought that Envious Casca would be a good title & assumed that everyone would recognize the allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar & not be too annoyed that the number of stab wounds in the murders was different.
Envious Casca is about to be reprinted with the original title, A Christmas Party, in time for Christmas this year. I think there’s also a nod to the very successful British Library Crime Classics in the cover art of the reprint. The BLCC series has a new Christmas book out as well, a collection of short stories, Silent Nights, selected by Martin Edwards. My copy is on its way. There’s also a reprint of an earlier BLCC title, The Santa Klaus Murder, with a new cover (a great improvement on the hideous cover it had when first published a few years ago). I doubt the British Library Crime Classics would be so successful if they hadn’t come up with that gorgeous cover art based on railway posters. All the earlier titles have been reprinted with covers in this style & I’m sure their sales must have improved.