Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Up to now the British Library crime classics have been Victorian; more specifically pre-Holmesian, but with Mavis Doriel Hay's THE SANTA KLAUS MURDER they have skipped a generation. This one was first published in 1936, and it is explicitly a golden age country house murder.
Even so, it has some original features. It is not set in a fictional Downs village near Guildford as so many of those stories seemed to be, but on the outskirts of Bristol, and if the house is cut off, it is not because of uniquely deep snow drifts, but because it is set over the Christmas holidays when the servants have gone home to their families, the trains are running a skeleton service and the newspapers are not being printed. All three of those inconveniences play a part.
Changes, too, in business and trade contribute to the plot: a pensioned-off chauffeur is in difficulties on one side by the failure of the parish relief (the welfare state was still ten years and a World War away), and on the other by the financial finagling involved in part-exchanging a motor car. The rich still get the pleasure, though, and their titles; the victim is a baronet who received his knighthood after restoring the family fortunes through a biscuit company, though he prefers to leave the maintenance of that aspect of life to his son who lives elsewhere while he plays lord of the manor at Flaxmere, the country house.
Sir Osmond Melbury is hanging onto life – he has already suffered one stroke – and to his money, and his influence. He maintains his influence by the subsidies he offers his children if they please him and by the promise of a division of the spoils in his will when he dies. He wants to act the part of a paterfamilias at a good old family Christmas – son, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, sisters, grand-children, prospective fiancés and a few more for a good measure are all at the house; not to forget, of course, secretary (never a servant), servants and former servants.
There will be a visit from Santa Klaus, of course, though Sir Osmond would not want to play the creature. He would prefer to watch the faces of the recipients of his largesse. Perhaps that is why he retires to his study alone after the visit of Saint Nick, so that he recall the look of pleasure on their faces. Or perhaps it is because he is expecting a mysterious telephone call. Or perhaps because he is expecting a visit from someone else dressed as Santa Klaus. I doubt, though, that he expected that someone would kill him.
Told in chronological order, the first chapters are narrated by various members of the household, and then by Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, who lives nearby and arrives to take control while police numbers are reduced. As the story continues it becomes clear that the first chapters are actually the statements made by the characters to the police and Halstock has put them in sequence, repeating Wilkie Collins' method in The Moonstone.
Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three detective novels, all of them in the 'thirties. None of the Melburys here (whether by blood, marriage or aspiration) particularly stand out, nor are memorable, and she may have found she was not a novelist by nature. On the other hand, as the family tend to blur she does develop the secretary and the former and current chauffeurs, while the final sentence (“There is a tacit understanding among the Melburys that there shall be no more family gatherings at Christmas time at Flaxmere”) nicely contradicts the thesis you still find in books of criticism that golden age detective stories always end by restoring the status quo. Consequently, if the British Library publish Ms Hay's other books they will find a place on my shelves.