The Santa Klaus Murder is a fun little story from 1936 reprinted as part of the Crime Classics series from the British Library. This is the first one I've tried but it certainly won't be the last. I was enthralled with this wry tale of murder at Christmastime, and the red herrings were flying in this one! This would fit perfectly into the cozy mystery category as well with its relative lack of violence and the nostalgic country house setting.
The Melbury family are coming together for the holiday at Flaxmere, the country home. Things are a little tense, as they often are, with there being a certain amount of confusion regarding the status of Sir Melbury's will. It appears that he was mulling the possibility of making changes, and furthermore the children were rather nonplussed at the presence of Miss Portisham, the personal secretary who Sir Melbury kept on to run the house after dismissing his sister from the same duties. To make matters worse, the youngest daughter Jennifer still lived at home and Melbury wanted her to continue to do so, disapproving of her plans to elope with Philip, a frequent guest.
It's probably not a big surprise that Ser Melbury ends up dead on Christmas Day, from a gunshot wound, and a suggestion of suicide is quickly dismissed as everyone is revealed to have a motive. Most of it relates to money, of course, and who would stand to gain from his death- the changes to his will were never enacted but nevertheless provide many clues as to who might have done it. The cast (and suspects) consist of five children, as well as the aforementioned Miss Portisham, other relatives and various servants and guests. It can be a little daunting to keep everyone straight but there is a handy list at the beginning of the book of everyone involved, and the story does a great job of providing insight into everyone's story and motivations.
There's also a useful map of the house, which helps a lot, and the book has several POV changes- the first five chapters are each from the perspective of a family member or guest, with the rest being largely the ruminations of the chief constable who investigates the murder. As I mentioned earlier there's a wry tone to the proceedings, an almost dark humor at times, which I found delightful. And also the red herrings- there are a ton, and while I did suspect the eventual culprit early on, there were a lot of other suspects that seemed plausible to me.
In fact I found the eventual reveal a little anti- climactic, just because there were so many possible elements that I was sure there was more of a conspiracy going on! still I enjoyed this book a great deal- it was fascinating to see a country house mystery play out in a book written in the 1930's, since I don't tend to read a lot of vintage mysteries. The house and the family and all the pieces of the puzzle just came together so well. I did think the police were a little too nice at times, almost too solicitous, but maybe that was accurate to the period and the social strata involved- nevertheless that's a minor complaint.
The other mitigating factor is that the chief constable knows the family, and has for years, so that I'm sure plays a role. I was baffled at times when the constable would allow a non- police person to work on the case, going so far as to develop theories and interview witnesses to an extent, but again this didn't affect my enjoyment of the story. One thing that struck me was the amount of lying and misdirection that went on. I imagine in today's world the lot of them would be rounded up for obstructing the investigation if they carried on like these people!
"I was shocked at the way these young people lied or prevaricated on the slightest excuse and then came out with another tale and confidently expected to be believed."
I loved taking the information from early in the book and seeing how it played out later as more information was gathered. Certain characters who were immediately sympathetic to me became less so, or I was unsure, as time went on, and going back to revisit their POV chapters was so fun as I neared the end and had more insight. This was a great introduction for me to the British Library Crime Classics and I will definitely be reading more.