A Christmas Party

A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer is a murder mystery originally published in 1941. I had never read any books by Heyer before and when this sharp new reprint came into the library as a donation I decided to give it a try. Most genres of fiction have Christmas counterparts (well maybe not so much in science and fantasy fiction, come to think of it) and my library system puts stickers on these novels to indicate their Christmas content. While there are plenty of such novels in the romance and “regular fiction” sections, it is surprising to see so many among the mysteries. I take a look at them but am all too often dissuaded from reading them because the combination of Christmas with murder does not appeal to me. However in this case I made an exception because of the reputation of the author. And A Christmas Party was, as a good mystery should be, a can’t-put-down read.

Heyer captured the formalities of early forties English conversation among the party guests, all the while keeping it easily understandable without required rereads. These lines of decorum were interlaced with some nasty exchanges which sent me into fits of silent laughter when Heyer brought out duelling cattiness that would have been entirely appropriate in a novel written today. With the guests confined to the house as police conduct their investigations, tempers rise and everyone is suspicious of the other as the murderer must be still among them. For 1941 it would have been quite a shock to read a woman call another a bitch, and the speaker’s tongue cut through the thick atmosphere of dread and distrust like a dagger (which happened to be the murder weapon).

I was hooked as soon as I started the novel, yet the actual murder wasn’t discovered until page 89 (of the novel’s 396 pages). Heyer spent the first fifth of the novel setting the scene and establishing the characters, all the while keeping the suspense percolating as the reader knew that at some time one of them would be murdered. I freely admit that I am not a regular reader of mysteries, so this preamble to murder might seem de rigueur in this genre of fiction. Unlike in more recent novels that I have read where deus ex machina ruled as the problem solver, Heyer never let herself off so easily. Investigators replayed the actions after listening to testimony and accepted or rejected what each character said. We could get into their minds about where the investigation was headed and eagerly awaited each subsequent interrogation as cover stories fell apart. The end result, where the murderer is discovered, as well as the method and motive, produced several a-ha moments. Heyer kept the reader guessing and even when the identity of the murderer became more apparent, it was that pesky method that kept me scratching my head. I was genuinely in awe at the modus operandi. The author did not let me down with a lacklustre explanation of motive either. Maybe I will give more Christmas murder mysteries a chance next year.

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