RogerBW's Blog

Rest You Merry, Charlotte MacLeod 18 January 2015

1979, cosy American detective fiction; first of MacLeod's novels of Professor Peter Shandy. In a New England agricultural college, the local busybody has had an accident, or been murdered. But was it really over the question of Christmas decorations?

This is a story that's not afraid to poke fun at itself. Why don't the police get called in straight away? Because the campus' chief of security is down-playing it all in order to avoid a scandal; it's so blatantly unconvincing that it's a knowing wink from the author, reminding us that this is a story of amateur sleuthing, and therefore the police must be useless in order for it to work.

Although some of the suspects start off a bit stereotyped, there's a running sense of humour in the tight third-person narration which carries the reader over any rough spots. The people may be horrible, as suits their role, but they transcend their generic horribleness and come out with real personalities by the end, in part informed by Shandy's own greater willingness to get involved with them as people.

With a finesse born of much practice, Professor Shandy backed Mrs. Ames off his front step and shut the door. This was the seventy-third time in eighteen years she'd nagged him about decorating his house. He'd kept count. Shandy had a passion for counting. He would have counted the spots on an attacking leopard, and he was beginning to think a leopard might be a welcome change.

In fact this is a story of transformation, and not only because of the fairly weak and unobstructed love story that forms a secondary plot. The clues are all there, and the resolution is suitably twisty, but the story is so enjoyable that I can easily see myself coming back to re-read this even knowing the answer. (There is a bit of the detective having worked things out but not mentioning them to the reader, which I tend to dislike, but that wasn't enough to spoil the book for me.)

There are perhaps just a couple of characters too many, and they're not always as well-separated as they might be. And this is a book of the 1970s, in such matters as the extravagance of a couple owning two cars between them, and the constant tippling. But read in the context of its time, which for me really is the only sensible way to read a work of fiction that one's hoping to enjoy, and without expectations that it will be anything more than a well-written and well-fleshed detective story (not the sort of bare-bones piece that you'd get from someone like John Dickson Carr), I found it a highly enjoyable book, particularly at Christmas.

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