"Rupert Latimer" was the pseudonym Algernon Victor Mills who came from a well to do, titled British family, "undoubtedly born with a silver spoon in his mouth," but during his childhood he ate wild, contaminated strawberries that killed his elder sister and their nurse – which left him lame and a lifelong epileptic. Mills died very young, aged 47 or 48, after doctors found a brain tumor. During his lifetime, Mills produced two obscure, long out-of-print detective novels, Death in Real Life (1943) and Murder After Christmas (1944), published under the name "Rupert Latimer."Last year, the British Library reissued Latimer's Murder After Christmas and this "witty and entertaining story" seemed like a good, lighthearted and appropriately-titled mystery to close out the year. What I didn't expect to find was a gem-encrusted clump of golden age detective fiction!
Murder After Christmas begins as a fairly typical, seasonal mystery in the fine old tradition of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) and Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca (1941). Frank and Rhoda Redpath discuss whether, or not, they should invite her "nearly ninety years of age" stepfather to stay with them over Christmas. Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, or simply Uncle Willie, never earned a penny in his life, but amassed several fortunes through inheritance and numerous profitable marriages. Quite a character and someone who's "difficult to manage."
Uncle Willie normally spends his Christmas holiday in Italy, but the present war and Mussolini taking sides made it impossible for him to cross the Channel to occupy his villa in San Remo. It should be noted that Murder After Christmas is also a World War II mystery in which European unpleasantness drifts over the story like wisps of dark clouds. There are the usual references to the blackouts, London refugees, petrol rationing and food wastage ("...almost as serious as murder nowadays"), but they also play a 1938 board game called Invasion – devised by thriller novelist Dennis Wheatley in anticipation of the next Great War in Europe. Martin Edwards writes in the introduction of the reprint that copies of Invasion "change hands on the second-hand market for high prices." Just one of those historical details that add so much to a vintage mystery. So much to Frans dismay, Uncle Willie accepted a previously extended invitation ("Didn't see that there could be any harm in asking. As an empty gesture of goodwill at Christmas. But there was one chance in a million that he would accept"), but Rhoda points out it may be his last Christmas. And if they give him a very special, lovely Christmas, he might remember them in his will ("Bread Upon the Waters").
Before he has even arrived, the Redpaths flippantly discuss the murder of Uncle Willie ("...could have been murdered in the best of taste") and how "he really did seem to be the easiest person in the world to murder." These ideas, jokingly as they are, do not subside with the arrival of the always difficult, obstinate Uncle Willie. Although they agree that the murder, any murder, should wait until after Christmas. That's exactly what happened.
On the wintry morning of Boxing Day, the body of Uncle Willie, "still in his Father Christmas make-up," is discovered lying a few feet away from a capsized snowman on the lawn clutching a piece of cardboard – a clue from the previous night's treasure hunt. A medical examination reveals he had died from an overdose of laudanum, which begs the question whether the old, absentmindedly man accidentally swallowed an overdose or was cleverly poisoned? He was in a habit of taking patent medicines, but murder comes into question when the Redpaths' son tries his hands at playing detective. There was a case of robbery at his office and John Redpath solved the mystery, which "rather interfering of him, because if he had left things alone probably no one would have guessed that there had been a robbery at all." Now he noticed that there had to be a second track of footprints leading to the body and snowman, because there simply had to be if the victim had made two trips to the snowman.
The problem of the tracks in the snow is one of three links Murder After Christmas has to the impossible crime tradition without going all in on them, which also include the problem of how the poison had been administrated. A third borderline impossibility is hidden in the tail of the plot, but can't comment on that without giving anything away. It's something I enjoyed very much.
Superintendent Culley has a pretty puzzle to sort out and piece together, complete with dodgy motives and clues as slippery as red herrings, which comes with cast of characters that makes him wonder, "are they all on the border-line" or "or is it me that's going balmy?" However, the gentle, humorous banter and eccentric characterization is not used as an excuse to go light on the plot. Murder After Christmas has an intricately designed, delightfully twisted plot under all the "damn silly nonsense" with some of best and most fascinating piece of clueing I've come across in a while. Not entirely on the same level of a John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, but the parcel of clues (i.e. the clue of the Christmas parcels) were wonderful and somewhat reminiscent to the Christmas presents from Ellery Queen's The Finishing Stroke (1958). But here they actually have meaning. You can correctly interpret some of the bizarre clues and follow them to the logical conclusion. Such as the parcel of mince-pies that was found sewn up in the upholstery of an armchair. It's the kind of seemingly incomprehensible clue that would have immediately elicited an enigmatic remark from Dr. Gideon Fell making Superintendent Hadley wish he was an American cop, so he had an excuse to lead some lead fly. Not necessarily at Dr. Fell. Just firing a couple of rounds in a wall or ceiling to let off a little bit of steam. What a fun and unexpectedly great Golden Age mystery novel!
So, all in all, Latimer's Murder After Christmas stands alongside Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death (1936) and James Yaffe's Mom Meets Her Makes (1990) as the best, strongest and above all most entertaining examples of the snowy, seasonal detective novel – distinguished by its fresh take on old themes and truly inspired plotting. A small, glittering gem from the genre's trail of obscurity that makes me hope Latimer's Death in Real Life will follow Murder After Christmas back to print in the not so distant future. Until then, I wish you all a happy and nuclear fallout free 2023!