Friday, December 14, 2018

Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan

Reviewed by Jeanne

Mordecai Tremaine, retired tobacco seller and amateur criminologist, has arrived at an English country house for a good, old fashioned Christmas, courtesy of an invitation from Benedict Grame, a man he knows only slightly.  It’s the post script from Grame’s assistant Nicholas Blaise that intrigues him, an ending that reads, “But I can tell there’s something wrong, and frankly, I’m getting scared.

Once he arrives, Tremaine meets an interesting assortment of characters, all of whom seem to have secrets. He’s particularly taken with two young lovers, kept apart by an apparent whim of the girl’s guardian, but then Mordecai is a romantic at heart. He even reads romance magazines.

 Before the sleuth can quite sort out all the relationships between the guests, Father Christmas is murdered—or rather, a member of the party in full Father Christmas robes.  The police are called, but in the best classic amateur sleuth tradition, it’s Mordecai Tremaine who will figure out the who, why, and how of the crime.

This is actually the second in the series by the pseudonymous Duncan, a reprint of the 1949 edition.  It’s in the mold of the classic mysteries of the sort done by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Marjorie Allingham.  I’m a fan of novels of that era, and often find modern takes on the themes to be somehow lacking, as if the author is trying too hard to replicate a style. This one flows very well and it feels fresh, not any sort of imitation.   Not only does it set up a fascinating puzzle (or, rather, set of puzzles) but the characters are deftly sketched.  There were a number of surprises along the way for me,  but in retrospect the groundwork had been fairly laid. Most of all, I was charmed by Mr. Tremaine.  He is interesting without being too quirky.  He’s genuinely interested in other people, keenly observing them, but without being coldly analytical.  Being a gentleman, he has a certain reserve but he comes off as being pleasant and good-natured. He's quietly confident, not egotistical.

If you like the classic cozy mystery style, by all means give this series a try. I intend to read all five.

As for the author, the mystery of his identity was solved when one of his children saw the reprinted books in a shop.  The author was one William Underhill of Bristol, England, who served in World War II and spent the rest of his working life as a teacher, supplementing the family income with his writing.  Besides the five Tremaine mysteries, he wrote over a dozen standalone novels between 1937 and 1959.  He died in 1988, at the age of 80.

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