"It arrived upon Christmas morning..."- Dr. Watson (Sir Arthur C. Doyle's "The Adventure from the Blue Carbuncle," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
C.H.B. Kitchin was a barrister, stockbroker and a British novelist from the mainstream who inherited a fortune and reportedly used his wealth to partake in all kinds of leisurely activities, which included botany, chess, music, gambling and breeding greyhounds – briefly becoming an important figure among greyhound breeders.
A professional dilettante who, in comparison, makes Philo Vance appear as a slightly more believable character.
However, what helped Kitchin's name survive the test of time better than others wasn't financial independence or an expensive hobby, but having authored four mystery novels. The major titles in this quartet are Death of My Aunt (1929) and Death of His Uncle (1939), of which the former is often confused with The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull, but I decided to read the lesser-known Crime at Christmas (1934) as my introduction to Kitchin's work.
I know some of you might consider it too early to start reading Christmas-themed detective stories, but here, in the Netherlands, the festivities begin halfway November with the arrival of Sinterklaas – officially ushering in the festive season. Why start in November, you ask? So we can enjoy it at our leisure, of course!
Crime at Christmas is narrated by a stockbroker, Malcolm Warren, who was introduced in Death of My Aunt as a suspect and there brief references littered throughout the story to that previous ordeal. Luckily, none of those references spoiled the solution.
Warren is invited to spend Christmas at the home of a wealthy client, Mr. Axel Quisberg, where his family has gathered and "were several persons of differing temperaments are gathered together" there are undercurrents. However, the characters are (mostly) portrayed as genuine, flawed human beings and not as cardboard cut-outs in a game of clue, in which one of the "players" simply begs for the proverbial dagger-thrust in the back. It's simply a matter of incompatible personalities being stuck in the same place over the holidays.
The family and guests filling the house are as follow: Mrs. Quisberg, who's described as "a devoted wife and indulgent mother" of five, which are all from her first two husbands. There are two boys: a fifteen-year-old, named Richard, and his twelve-year-old brother Cyril, but the former is spending the holidays in Switzerland and the latter is recovering in an upstairs room from appendicitis – and never make an on-page appearance. They have two sisters who do appear in the story: namely twenty-year-old Amabel and eighteen-year-old Sheila. Finally, there's an elder, artistically minded brother, Clarence James, who's from their mother's first marriage and Warren's personality seems to possess a personality that’s incompatible with him.
There are, of course, some non-related guests: Amabel has brought along Leonard Dixon, "a stalwart ex-tea-planter," with whom she's very much in love, but nobody else seems to really enjoy his company. A medical-specialist from Vienna, Dr. Martin Green, has a much more amiable and likeable personality, which makes him a lively guest and conversationalist. The party is rounded out by Mr. Quisberg's secretary, Mr. Harley, and his timid, insomnia-plagued mother – who was invited because she would've been alone otherwise.
As you can probably deduce from these descriptions, it's hardly your standard, hate-filled family with a cruel and stringent patriarch or matriarch at its head asking to be murdered. So when a completely inoffensive character dies violently, it casts genuine pall of doom over the story.
|C.H.B. Kitchin, Professional Dilettante|
On Christmas morning, Warren finds the crumpled body of Mrs. Harley on his balcony. Mrs. Harley plunged from her second-floor window and broke her neck, but the incident is written-off as a tragic accident of an insomnia-plagued woman prone to sleepwalking when she finally dosed off – which might also have been due to being in a strange room and having confused the window with a door. The word murder is never uttered in the direct aftermath of Mrs. Harley passing and this part of the story has shades of Kitchin as a mainstream novelist, in which Warren records "some of the dullest passages" of his narrative.
However, Warren's musings on the characters and movement of the inhabitants of Beresford Lodge prove to be valuable clues in the second-half, which is when a very obvious case of murder is perpetrated on Boxing Day. The clues are neatly summarized towards the ending and consist of both the behavior of the characters ("conversation, hurried and agitated... on the front lawn"), what was overhead ("why, in that light I saw it as plain as I can see you!") and tangible indicators such as the smell of chloroform in Mrs. Harley room and a detonating pistol for firework.
The end result is a surprisingly clever, tightly-plotted detective story with mostly well-rounded detective story and the cherry on top was the final chapter, in which Warren has a conversation with the reader – discussing the aesthetics of the detective stories, plot and addresses a major coincidence that moved the second half of the plot. So that part was forgivable and you have to take the "blinkin' cussedness of things in general" into consideration. The only weak link in the chain would be the late introduction of the clue to the motive, which only made me see through half of the solution. But that's a minor complaint that shouldn't take away all that much from the overall quality of the book.