Back during the Golden Age of mystery writing the festive whodunit was a tradition. One of the many characters in The Dead of Winter curls up with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas as he is trapped with others on an island cut off from the mainland by a blizzard.
Nicola Upson continues the custom of the classic country estate mystery in this thrilling homage to the genre, set in December 1938, as storm clouds of impending war close over Europe. Real mystery writer Josephine Tey, her lover Marta and her friend Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard gather with other guests for a Christmas house party in the castle on the tidal isle of St Michael’s Mount.
The regular trio in the Tey series have been invited to the festivities to benefit a Jewish refugee charity by Archie’s childhood friend chatelaine Hilaria St Aubyn. There’s a sprinkle of glittering glamour as Archie acts as security to escort the world’s most famous movie star to the party, who is dodging the Nazis and fears kidnap – one German official even turns up on the quayside to wave off a guest as she boards the boat.
Throw in a blizzard, a clergyman and his wife, a warring couple, a Nazi sympathiser, a mysterious absent guest, a newspaper photographer, a troubled housekeeper, and two murders and you have all the makings of a classic crime set up.
The story begins with a flashback to the brutal slaying of a desperately poor mother and four of her six children in London in 1920, the ‘day that stripped the joy from Christmas’ for rookie young police officer Archie Penrose.
Fast forward to 1938 and as the castle guests make the long journey to Cornwall, we as readers are eyewitnesses to the first murder on the isle and the identity of that killer, which is undiscovered for much of the book.
We also get to spy on the visitors and staff in their private quarters – it’s a neat trick to put flesh on the bones of the whole ensemble and reveal their motives without back story slowing the plot. Of course, there is a lot going on to pique the interest and cast suspicion.
They have only been in residence a few hours when the body of Rev Richard Hartley is discovered in the blizzard tied to St Michael’s Chair – a lantern tower on top of the priory church on the highest point of the rock. The site of the gruesome killing is a symbol of dominance and judgement.
The spectre of that Christmas Day back in London reappears to Archie when he wonders if the slaughter of the innocents in 1920 is connected to the current death. Something about the messages surrounding the arrangement of the body ring a quiet bell. The detective is hamstrung by the weather. He’s desperate for information from London and back up from the Cornish police, as he and several brave fishermen tie themselves together to traverse the storm-lashed causeway during low tide.
Christmas in the castle is ruined as the feast is abandoned and Josephine, Marta, the film star and the other guests and islanders are cut off with a likely killer. Sanctuary has become a prison for the actress, who makes herself useful.
In the highly charged atmosphere in the eye of the storm a kind of supportive and protective sisterhood develops as danger stalks the castle fortress. Themes of domestic violence, fear, jealousy dementia, betrayal, poverty and riches, add layers of authenticity to the narrative without threatening the plotlines.
This ninth novel in the Josephine Tey series draws on many of the much-loved conventions of the Golden Age Christmas mystery, with myriad twists for a modern readership, without the big reveal to assembled guests in the finale. It’s all the better for that.
This is a Christmas treat to bring comfort and joy if you enjoy the thrill of the chase and fancy racing the detective to unmask a killer.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars