That overdosed, bleary feeling after Christmas is one we can all relate to. The manic preparations are done, the pies are baked, the presents are wrapped, the travellers are in. Merry, merry, wassail, and ho-ho-ho. Then follows the glorious hangover of lazy lunches, afternoon naps, and cousins building snowmen.
And so it should have been for the Frank and Rhoda Redpath. It’s 1944 in the British countryside. Too old to fight himself, they’ve taken in an evacuee and become stalwarts in their town. Uncle Willie — Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, to be exact — has written to say his hotel has been commandeered, his Spanish castle obliterated, and his usual villa in Italy unreachable. The war really has limited the nonagenarian’s travel. Frank and Rhoda take pity and invite their aged relative to stay with them for Christmas and cross their fingers he may see fit to add them to his substantial will.
The Redpaths’ home is also the site of their traditional Boxing Day merriment with guessing games, scavenger hunt, chocolates, and more. Uncle Willie announces he will join in the fun as well and sequesters himself in his room, with an assistant, to write clues as well as finish some pages to his autobiography.
What with the woolliness of Uncle Willie and the woolliness of the countryside, it was rather like living in a padded cell at first.
It also usually appeared to be snowing indoors as well as out, for Uncle Willie not only wrote his normal quantity of letters but claimed to be writing his autobiography, amongst other things. ~ Pg. 31
Word gets around of Uncle Willie’s appearance and everyone gets the same idea. Lost cousins and family acquaintances show up for the party, hoping to make an impression on the man. His seeming forgetfulness and muddled memories make the visits all the more urgent. But the would-be gold diggers are stymied when Uncle Willie remains in his room until he comes out to play Father Christmas. Then when he is found dead in a snowbank the next morning, all hopes of being added to the will are dashed.
According to the introduction by Martin Edwards, This novel has been out of print for nearly 75 years. First published in 1944 (the same year it is set), it intertwines the reality of Britain at war and a delightfully unserious tone. Amidst food rations, petrol shortages, and city evacuees are hidden mince-pies, vapid couples, and a doddering lawyer.
There is a hint of P.G. Wodehouse’s absurdity baked in to the storytelling and thankfully the tone is sustained throughout the novel. So often the wit drains away when the mystery begins. Somewhere between ex-wives, missing chocolate boxes, snowmen, and footprints the truth lies, and it’s up to Superintendent Culley to sort through the oddity to find actual clues.
The Redpath family gave Culley a really good dinner, and he didn’t make peculiar smacking noises with his lips or clatter needlessly with his knife and fork, which Frank said he would and Rhoda said he wouldn’t…. Nor did he talk about his food, noticed Aunt Paulina, which was more than could be said for the Upper Classes nowadays; though he couldn’t resist remarking that, considering the war and everything, they seemed to have done themselves pretty well over Christmas.
The Redpaths, guiltily, felt they ought to exonerate themselves, explaining about the generosity and unscrupulousness of Uncle Willie and his insistence on going ‘the whole hog’ (!) at Christmas-time, war or not. ~Pg. 184-5
On top of all that, it’s a solid puzzle mystery with a satisfying-enough solution. It’s the perfect read to accompany your post-holiday malaise.
My thanks to Emily at Sourcebooks for the review copy.
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press; Reissue edition (October 4, 2022)
Paperback: 352 pages