Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review of Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin (Hogarth, 1934; reprinted Faber and Faber 2009)

Malcolm Warren is a stockbroker in the City.  On Christmas eve his wealthiest client, Mr Quisberg asks him to increase his shareholding of the Harrington Cobalt Company before he travels out to Beresford Lodge, a large house in Hampstead Heath, to spend Christmas with his client and his other guests.  Warren arrives just as Quisling and his secretary, Hartley, are leaving to travel into the city to meet the owner of a company intent on purchasing the same company in which he's just bought shares.  After being shown to his room he joins the others for dinner, including Mrs Quisling, her daughters from her second marriage, Amabel and Sheila, her son from her first marriage, Clarence, Amabel’s would-be fiancée Len Dixon, the mother of Quisling’s secretary, Mrs Hartley, and Dr Green, Quisling’s right-hand man. Elsewhere in the house is another son, Cyril, who is being tended by the attractive young nurse, Ms Moon, and the house staff including Edwins the footman and several housemaids, cooks and gardeners.  When Warren awakes on Christmas morning he discovers the body of Mrs Hartley on the balcony outside his room.  It seems she had fallen from an open window whilst sleep walking.  The news of the accidental death unsurprisingly unsettles the household and Warren witnesses a number of odd occurrences.  Then he discovers a second body, this time most definitely the victim of foul play.

Crime at Christmas is the second novel in a short series of four books featuring Malcolm Warren.  The first, Death of My Aunt, published in 1929 is considered something of a classic.  Crime at Christmas follows a familiar trope of the golden age of crime novels - several people are staying in a large house and one of them dies.  It could be an accident or it could be murder.  The various family members, guests and domestic staff have varying status, relationships and conflicts, and the resident amateur detective sets about solving the mystery.  With regards to the latter, Warren is somewhat of a fey, upper-class gentleman character and reluctant detective who hoards clues to protect reputations rather than handing them over to the police.  Kitchin spins the tale out in an engaging fashion with a vivid cast of characters.  However, in the latter half of the book the story starts to unravel, with the solution to the puzzle being a little ridiculous and difficult to believe, and the denouement weak.  Kitchin himself seems to know this, with a final chapter that consists of a conversation between author and imagined reader that tries to provide reason to some of the more fanciful elements of the story.  Overall, an engaging and mildly amusing story that suffers from a weak resolution.  On the subject of production, I much prefer the Hogarth cover to the Faber and Faber one, which also lacks a synopsis or any details about CHB Kitchin or his work.  It's great that some of his novels have been reprinted, but it would have taken very little effort to add some value to the books in terms of design and an intro.


Jerry House said...

Any relation? Just wondering.

Rob Kitchin said...

not that I'm aware. He doesn't appear in the 1500 names my father has in the family tree. One of the upper class, moneyed Kitchin's unlike our humble background as a family of joiners.