Miss Bates launches her annual Christmas romance reviewing month with … a Christmas-set murder mystery, a “not-a-romance” review of Francis Duncan’s 1949 Murder For Christmas. (Duncan’s work was recently reissued, revived, and thank the Good Lord for that, because it’s glorious.) And yet, Murder For Christmas contains a vein of commentary about Miss Bates’s most beloved and oft-read genre in the voice of Duncan’s romance-reading, old-bachelor, amateur sleuth, Mordecai Tremaine, an engaging, loveable, and despite his appearance seventy years ago (with Duncan’s first Tremaine mystery, Murder Has A Motive) fresh-feeling main character. Duncan’s Murder For Christmas has that old-fashioned Agatha-Christie closed-room, country-estate premise with elegant prose, adept plotting and pacing, and a great voice in Mordecai Tremaine. Miss Bates would venture to say there is something cleaner, more sophisticated in Duncan that Christie lacks (*runs away in fear from Christie fans*).
Upon starting Duncan’s mystery, Miss Bates was struck by the, as she said above, elegant prose, Tremaine’s meditative musings, and beautifully-rendered moody setting. In retrospect, having turned the last page, Miss Bate is equally in awe of Duncan’s plotting, for the mystery’s unravelling is all right there, within the first few pages, its tragedy and difficulty and sadness. But there be no spoilers in this review, only admiration and the hope that Miss Bates’s readers will pick up and enjoy Murder For Christmas this holiday season and come to share their thoughts with her.
Duncan’s mystery novel is, at least on the surface, a typical closed-room mystery. At Benedict Grame’s annual invitation, specific guests gather at Sherbroome House, his West Country estate, to celebrate Christmas season. Duncan peoples his mystery with figures familiar from black-and-white ’40s mystery films: lovers Denys Arden and Roger Wynton being foiled by Deny’s guardian, Jeremy Rainier, and the host’s, Benedict’s best friend; a tippling “Uncle”, Gerald Beechley; Benedict’s mousy sister, Charlotte; Benedict’s right-hand-man, Nicholas “Nick” Blaise; two beautiful, desired women, Rosalind Marsh and Lucia Tristam; a harried politician, Austin Delamere; a furtive, nervous couple, the Napiers; a dour academician, Professor Ernest Lorring; and, new-to-the-guest-list this year, sexagenarian Mordecai Tremaine, made famous for working with Scotland Yard to solve the Dalmering murders “down in Sussex last summer”. They gather to join in Benedict’s carefully orchestrated festivities in an estate that hearkens back to Elizabeth I. Christmas permeates everything about Duncan’s mystery: the mood, setting, and, especially, the murder … when the victim is found dead, dressed as Father Christmas, underneath the Christmas tree, “Father Christmas” echoes the narrative voice, “had been murdered”.
P.D. James’s Scotland Yard detective, Adam Dalgliesh, once said that the motive behind any murder is “love, lust, or lucre.” Duncan’s mystery runs true to form: in motivation, premise, and resolution. What made it stand out was Tremaine’s character, his wonderful internal dialogue about the tension between the mystery and romance genres, and polished prose. We are introduced to Tremaine as a romance reader, an old, seemingly benign bachelor with a penchant and talent for solving crime, whose heart belongs to Mills and Boon:
Mordecai Tremaine was a steadfast reader of that innocent but undoubtedly treacle-laden magazine Romantic Stories. He followed its serials thirstily, suffering and triumphing with their virtuous heroines. But although he read it so avidly, he was still a little shamefaced whenever he was caught doing so, and would make furtive attempts to smuggle it out of sight.
We’ve come far since the days when romance was hidden and a secret shame, but have we? Miss Bates was utterly charmed by Tremaine’s reading, and especially when Duncan used it to compare to the nasty that can accompany the darkest reaches of the human heart.
Duncan never dismisses, or derides Tremaine’s reading habits, rather he makes of them a way to stave off the darkness, to believe in good, and be hopeful. Duncan writes his detecting bachelor with a yearning for love and romance, a wistful regret that he never found his true love, or became a father. He makes Tremaine’s detecting mind partner with his “sentimental soul”:
His gloom had vanished. The strange depression that had overwhelmed him earlier in the day had slunk away in defeat. He was a child again, snatching at a belief in fairies and in a Santa Claus who came down chimneys and filled a million stockings in one amazing night. Sentiment was in control, and for Mordecai Tremaine, this was a moment that would help to sustain him when the time came for him to feel again the knowledge that bitterness and terror and dark despair had their being in the hearts of men.
Like the vision of plenty and love that is Santa Claus, Tremaine is sustained by the belief in two people falling in love, pledging love and commitment, and living in harmony and affection: “romantic stories provided him with the chief means of satisfying his emotions” and “He was romantic enough to believe firmly in the sanctity of marriage”. Though Duncan writes seventy years ago, the same holds true of the romance genre, to help us feel, with Tremaine, “that all was well in the best of worlds.”
What kept Miss Bates reading Murder For Christmas and why she lauds it now is Tremaine’s intelligent attachment to, and understanding of, the gift that is the romance genre:
It was a night when joyous magic was abroad, the kind of magic for which mankind had so great a need and in which there is no fear. Why should he be so heavy with foreboding, so laden down with a dread he could not name? He switched on the reading lamp at the side of his bed and settled back against the pillows with Romantic Stories in his hand. Here was the anodyne. Here he would find balm for his soul. As literature, it might be the subject of scorn by the critics, but at least it was mellow and kindly. It offered love and romance and the humour and humanity that formed the mainspring of the world.
Tremaine understands that the romance narrative contains the “what ought to be” and “what can be”: he is no fool when it comes to the world’s realities of anger, enmity, hatred, jealousy, and revenge. But Tremaine recognizes that that need not be the whole story:
It was all wrong that the cold winter beauty upon which he was gazing should be marred by man’s inability to live in charity with his neighbours and that murder should lie like an evil smudge across perfection. He liked to feel that the sun shone always upon lovers. He liked to feel that God was in His Heaven and that all was right with a world in which there was no false note. Perhaps it was a shrinking from reality, a refusal to face the bitter truths of existence. But it was an integral part of him, and he could not change it.
In the end, Tremaine may be an amateur, shrewd sleuth extraordinaire, but his most endearing quality, the one that won him over for Miss Bates, is his belief in the importance of a myth of reconciliation, love, peace, and justice.
Miss Bates admits that the “treacle-laden” nature of our main character did not endear him to Miss Austen. But, Miss Bates, as would her fictional counterpart, stands ready to defend Mordecai Tremaine’s creator, who may as readily stand with Betty Neels as Agatha Christie: serving both love and justice. There are no wrong notes here and Francis Duncan’s Murder For Christmas is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Francis Duncan’s Murder For Christmas was originally published by John Long in 1949. It was reissued by Vintage Books in 2015 and, in North America, by Sourcebooks Landmark on October 1st of this year. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks Landmark, via Netgalley.