The Melbury family have gathered for Christmas at the country house residence of the head of the family, Sir Osmond Melbury. They're all trying to keep him sweet because he's very rich and they want a good share of his money when he dies. What no one expects is that his death will happen within days, but happen it does when he's murdered in his study while Santa Klaus is doling out presents to the family in another room.
The Chief Constable, Colonel Halstock, is assigned the task of solving the murder, he being an old friend of the dead man. It's a poisoned chalice of course. The relatives hate him for questions he has to ask and the amount of delving he has to do. Just about everyone has their secrets and possible motive for killing Osmond Melbury, be it his five children, their various spouses, sundry suitors, employees and ex-employees. The list is endless. Sir Osmond, it seems, was a manipulator and complicated man who thought nothing of playing games with people's lives.
Halstock finds it impossible to trace the precise movements of the large number of people present during the relevant minutes when the murder occurred. Then a revelation throws everything he's learnt into doubt. An actor acquaintance tries to assist him in his enquiries but does he too have an ulterior motive? Is there anyone who hasn't? And why does it appear that everyone in the house is witholding information?
Well, this crime yarn was very enjoyable. It does involve a very large cast of characters and I must admit they were difficult to keep track of at first. Luckily there is a helpful list of who's who at the beginning and I did have to refer to it a few times. Eventually though I did get my head around them all and settled nicely into the storyline which is a traditional country house mystery. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially at this time of year when you're busy and just want a good, fun read.
That said, I thought this was very well written and quite challenging in the whodunnit department. I actually had no idea who'd done the deed until quite near the end and it's good fun when that happens. Perhaps I would've liked a slightly better idea of who the detective, Colonel Halstock, was. He didn't have the depth that we see in, say, Hercule Poroit, with his pedantry and funny little ways that make him so human. But that's being nit-picky. I really enjoyed the story and the setting and thought it was a perfect Christmas read.
The author, Mavis Doriel Hay, is one of those lost authors from the 1930s who has been rediscovered by the BLCC and her books reissued. There are two others available from them, Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell both of which I plan to read now that I've discovered that the author's writing is very good.