I love reading British Library Crime Classics Christmas mystery offerings around this time of the year, and their latest is one madcap riot! 😆
The story, set during WWII, begins with the arrival of Sir Willoughby Keen-Cotton at the Redpaths just before Christmas. Not that it’s an ideal time for Rhoda and Frank Redpath to entertain Uncle Willie, as they like to call him. They already have Paulina, Rhoda’s former governess & Frank’s aunt, and a few evacuees staying with them, so having an extra mouth to feed during times of rationing takes some adjustment. But when Uncle Willie first wrote to Rhoda complaining about how the war prevented him from spending his holidays as usual in his villa in San Remo, Italy, Rhoda had had to extend him an invitation. Her motives are not entirely altruistic, however. Uncle Willie is almost ninety, so this could very well be his last Christmas. So if they show him a good time, perhaps he’ll amend his will a wee bit in their favor, is what she thinks.
Murder After Christmas is hilarious from the get-go, owing to Latimer’s lighthearted writing style. It is cheekily suggested that Sir Willoughby “seems to have caused a lot of trouble in the world, one way and another” because “the present war was declared to make it as difficult as possible for [him] to cross the Channel,” and before that, the Spanish Civil War was fought “to blow up his castle in Spain.” Apart from being a nuisance to world peace, Uncle Willie is also a nightmare of a house-guest, not in the least because he is quite capable of getting himself killed, and must be kept under tactful supervision at all times! He is the kind who’d insist they don’t want to cause any trouble but would be a great burden because of their eccentricity. Yet having him for Christmas has already increased the Redpaths’ social status, so it may not have been a bad bargain. The Redpaths’ neighbors who snubbed them before are clamoring around them now to get to know Sir Willoughby Keen-Cotton better, who has lived a scandalous life by yesteryear’s standards. His colorful past is littered with multiple marriages and inheritances, which is how he, who never worked a day in his life, has amassed all of his wealth. In fact, Rhoda’s mother, the widow of a millionaire, had been his second wife. All of Rhoda’s father’s fortune has been passed on to Uncle Willie when Rhoda’s mother died, causing some unpleasantness between the Redpaths and Uncle Willie in the past. But after a while, Uncle Willie had come to his senses and given Rhoda that money, so now their disagreements are water under the bridge, which is one reason why it doesn’t make sense when Uncle Willie is found possibly murdered come Boxing Day morning. Given his wealth, and with money as the motive, ordinarily, the police may not have had a tough time figuring out the murderer. However, Sir Willoughby’s third wife, the sole beneficiary of his will, had died on Christmas Eve, and the news hadn’t reached the Redpaths for him to draw a new will, so no one in particular benefits from his death. As it stands, since Uncle Willie died in intestacy, his fortune will be divided up equally among all of his wives’ children. So the police are stumped, unable to figure out how and why he was murdered, if it indeed was a murder.
Even though all the clues are there, this is a hard case to crack because of all the ridiculousness involved (in a fun, amusing way!). All of Sir Willoughby’s step-children and their family are suspects, and they all frankly admit to plotting to murder him one time or another. But they are also an eccentric bunch making it difficult to work out if any of them could have actually gone ahead and murdered him. So kudos to the police for their investigative skills – I wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tails of this! 😅
Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of Murder After Christmas.