Title: A Christmas Party
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published in 1941:
Plot Summary from Goodreads: It is no ordinary Christmas at Lexham Manor.
Six holiday guests find themselves the suspects in a murder inquiry when the old Scrooge who owns the substantial estate is found stabbed in the back.
Whilst the delicate matter of inheritance could be the key to this crime, the real conundrum is how any of the suspects could have entered the locked room where the victim was found, to commit this foul deed.
For Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, the investigation is also complicated by the fact that every guest at Lexham Manor is hiding something – casting suspicion far and wide…
Previously titled Envious Casca
This is not the first time that I’ve read Envious Casca, as it was originally titled. I think I’ve read it through a full three times – the first and second times I couldn’t quite remember the solution to the mystery. This time, I knew the ending and was able to see the clues as they were embedded in the story.
This is a classic English mystery – closed circle, locked room, country-house, Christmas mystery. I’ve read other Heyer mysteries, and will complete the list at some point, but, right now, I think this is her best.
The book opens with the gathering of the Herriard family for Christmas at the behest of Uncle Joseph, who lives with his brother, Nat Herriard. Nat is the patriarch of the family, and the one with all of the family money.
“Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.”
Nat has no children, but his nephew, Stephen, has been acknowledged as his heir. Stephen is the child of his other brother, who died many years ago. Stephen’s mother lives in Canada with her 3rd husband and isn’t in the picture at all. Paula, Stephen’s sister, is also a guest for Christmas. Paula has brought along her latest squeeze, a playwright named Royden, and Stephen’s vacuous but pretty fiancee, Valerie, is also there for the holiday. There’s also a random cousin, Mathilda, Nat’s business partner, Mottisfont and Joseph’s wife, Maud, to round out the guest list.
The Herriard family is an obstreperous and argumentative bunch. Nat is not so awful as Simeon Lee from Christie’s holiday classic, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, but he enjoys a wrangle as much as the next guy. Some families get together for a game of Pictionary during the holidays, the Herriard’s get together for their own version of Festivus, which primarily relies on the airing of grievances.
‘Miss Herriard,’ responded Mathilda coolly, ‘treated the assembled company to a dramatic scene – she’s an actress, good in emotional rôles. I wasn’t present, but I’m told that she and Mr Herriard had a really splendid quarrel, and enjoyed themselves hugely.’
‘Seems a funny way to enjoy yourself, miss.’
‘It would seem funny to you or to me, Inspector, but not, believe me, to a Herriard.’
When Uncle Nat ends up dead in his locked bedroom, having been stabbed in the back, everyone is a suspect and everyone, almost, has a motive. This is an exceptionally clever mystery, relying on misdirection, and some legal and medical intricacies for the solution.