RogerBW's Blog

Murder Goes Mumming, Charlotte MacLeod 31 August 2015

1981, cosy American detective fiction; second of MacLeod's novels (as "Alisa Craig") of Madoc and Janet Rhys. In a remote country house in Canada, old Granny Condrycke has died peacefully in her sleep. With the house cut off, the family decides to go ahead with Christmas festivities. But Madoc Rhys, a Mountie who's there accidentally undercover with his fiancée Janet, reckons there was more to it.

"Accidentally undercover" defines the sort of book this is: Madoc Rhys, who in the first book was just a competent RCMP detective but now turns out to have an Important Family, gets invited with his fiancée by friends of his parents' to their big Christmas celebration at their family home on the Baie des Chaleurs on the Québec/New Brunswick border, where they seem determined to have an English Country House Experience in spite of the climate. His mother's faintly embarrassed by Madoc's job, since the rest of the family is professionally musical, and allows her friends to think that he's some sort of government administrator.

Clearly this is setup for a classic Country House Mystery, complete with unwise-but-too-well-loving daughter, dipsomaniac uncle, faintly dodgy lawyer, money pressures, and all the other requirements. MacLeod obviously knows what she's doing, even occasionally mentioning that

Over in Britain, some sweet middle-aged lady with a penchant for gore and a driving lust for an advance royalty check would be pounding out a mystery novel about a house party trapped in a blizzard

but manages to put her own spin on the standard ideas of the genre. (Not least because Janet's feckless ex-boyfriend is there too, as the guest of the daughter.)

Research is minor but pleasing, with a mention of the local phantom ship legend (which in fact plays a small but important part in the plot), though I thought that a mention of "twenty-eight degrees below zero Fahrenheit" was a bit extreme for that part of the world; indeed, Wikipedia tells me the usual minimum temperature at that time of year is about 0-10°F, -18 to -12°C.

As a murder mystery, one crucial piece of evidence is never mentioned until the accusation has been made; I didn't feel there was any way to pick the actual guilty party out from the others, though he/she was certainly in the upper half of the suspect list. It's pleasing to see someone point out that everyone should be considered a suspect until they've actually been eliminated.

There's a sly sense of humour here, and the book never takes itself too seriously:

"After your capture of Mad Carew the Murdering Maniac of the Mirimachi, you are something of a legend in these parts. Is it true, sir, that you tracked that man of fiendish cunning and titanic strength one hundred twenty-seven miles through unbroken wilderness, armed only with a slingshot against a throwing knife, a double-bitted axe, and a high-powered hunting rifle?"

"The slingshot is apocryphal," Rhys answered.

I'm surprised, therefore, that MacLeod felt the need to include a coda pointing out that the criminal may in the end get away with it in court. And one arch line is used twice in that final chapter, suggesting haste or poor editing.

Short and slight, but with surprisingly well-developed characters. Followed by A Dismal Thing to Do.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:44am on 31 August 2015

    Maybe MacLeod picked -16C and "converted" to Fahrenheit by *9/5? It's the sort of mistake people make.

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