The Santa Klaus Murder

by Mavis Doriel Hay

Ahh, those family Christmases! Despite mundane frictions, the extended Melbury family has gathered for a traditional holiday.

A merry time will be had by all — except for pater familias Sir Oswald Melbury, who is found alone in his study with a fatal gunshot wound.

The poor guest who discovered him slumped over his desk is Oliver Witcombe. Clad in a Santa Klaus costume, Oliver was just back from distributing gifts to the servants to make his report as requested by Sir Oswald. As it turns out, Oliver is the only person in the house who has nothing to gain from Sir Oswald’s death.

Sir Oswald was a wealthy, self-made man. But wealth does not guarantee generosity, as his five children well know. All but his favorite daughter, Eleanor Stickland, have issues with him. He disinherited his oldest daughter Hilda when she married against his wishes. He was blocking his youngest daughter, Jennifer’s, desire to marry Philip Cheriton. He was at odds with his daughter Edith, Lady Evershot, for not producing grandchildren. His son, George, is financially pinched by gambling debts and the expenses of his wife and three children, and could really use some of the old man’s funds.

All have concerns about Sir Oswald’s will and, even more importantly, his efficient, attractive and ever-solicitous private secretary, Miss Grace Portisham.

This is a vintage British mystery: a country house murder; a finite circle of unlikely suspects and a trail of clues allowing the reader to deduce “whodunnit” before the end of the book.

Hay has written it with guests, family members and investigators telling what they observed in successive chapters.  It gives different voices and perspectives to the case, but does little to overcome the misinformation (and missing information) put forth by the narrators.

This is light reading that can be done even with a tummy full of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Figuring out the culprit isn’t terribly difficult; this is hardly Agatha Christie after all. The publisher has helpfully provided a diagram of the first floor of the home and a list of characters. At the end of the book (beware, the culprit is named here), an amateur detective, Kenneth Stour, who had been helping Chief Constable Col. Halstock in his investigations, lays out his reasoning for identifying the killer.

If you want diversion during the holiday or you like puzzles and games, you’ll enjoy this book.

The Author: Mavis Doriel Hay (1894 – 1979)

Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three novels published in the 1930s: the Santa Klaus Murder, Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell. These books were largely unknown until they were reprinted in 2013-14 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.

Hay’s crime-writing contemporaries included G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham and New Zealander Ngaio Marsh. Mysteries from this era tended to be “whodunits,” have unlikely culprits and feature upper class characters. The secluded country house was a typical setting.

These books follow rules, codified by Ronald Knox, a writer and Catholic priest who defined a detective story as having “as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”

Hay attended St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, from 1913 to 1916. She had a lifelong interest in the industries and handicrafts of rural Britain. In the late 1920s, she and her future sister-in-law Helen Elizabeth Fitzrandolph collaborated on a series surveying the rural industries of England and Wales that was sponsored by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of Oxford University. Later, under her married name, Mavis Fitzrandolph, she published several works on crafts, particularly quilting.

She married Archibald Menzies Fitzrandolph in 1929.  He was killed in a flying accident during World War II. Hay continued to live in Gloucestershire until she died in 1979 at 85.


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