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Thursday 25 November 2021

‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ by Mavis Doriel Hay.

Originally Published 1941.
Published by British Library Crime Classics,
1 October 2015 (PB)

In Hay's third book, The Santa Klaus Murder, the victim is Sir Osmond Melbury, a tyrannical patriarch who bullies his family into submission by threats of cutting them out of his will. Sir Osmond has purchased a Santa Claus suit and persuaded one of the guests to wear it and give out presents on Christmas Day. Sir Osmond's controlling manner extends even to theronunciation of the character's name: 'I knew Sir Osmond was particular about us saying Santa Klaus; said we gave it up in the War, because it was German, but we oughtn't to mind now and Father Christmas was just silly.' As in Hay's previous books, the victim isunpleasant and many people wish him dead, and the setting is the closed community of a country house at Christmas. However the style of this book is very different from its predecessors. Approximately the first 20% of the book is occupied by First Person narrative accounts from five people who were in the house when the murder was committed and describe the days leading up to the murder. Much of the rest of the book is in the First Person narrative of Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, although there are two later chapters in other characters' viewpoints. One of these viewpoints is that of Kenneth Stour, an actor who has recently returned from a triumphant tour abroad, who is allowed to insert himself into the investigation. Colonel Halstock indicates that Stour is a talented amateur detective who has been of use to the police before in investigations. Again the amateur detectives solve the case just ahead of the official investigators.

In my opinion, the style of The Santa Klaus Murder does not work as well as Hay's earlier books. When Wilkie Collins used 'witness statement' narratives in The Moonstone (1868) the reader knew what was happening from the beginning and the different narrating voices were clearly differentiated. In The Santa Klaus Murder it is easy to get muddled between narrators and it is not clearly explained why these people are giving these accounts, although matters improve when Colonel Halstock takes the main part of the narrative.

Hay's books are always an ensemble act, with amateur detectives emerging all over the place. Perhaps one of the reasons she did not continue writing detective fiction was that she could not decide what sort of detective she wished to spend her mystery writing career with, although there are several options. Betty, Sally and Basil would have made an enterprising and amusing detective trio. Suave, experienced Kenneth Stour could have been developed into an excellent series detective. However, my vote would have gone to the eccentric and irritating novelist Mrs Daymer from Murder Underground. Towards the end of the book, two sets of amateurs hit upon the truth at the same moment but it is Mrs Daymer who has the wit to spot an insignificant clue that is too nebulous to take to the police, and also has the determination to follow it up and collect the evidence: 'The implication which she saw in this discoloured record of an unimportant case of thirty years ago was so horrible and so fantastic that she could not bring herself to name the man whom it seemed to point to.' It is possible, if Hay had wanted to develop her, Mrs Daymer might have made a detective to rival Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley.

Of course, all this is irrelevant, because Hay never created a series detective or a series of detective stories. One can only speculate on Hay's reasons for abandoning detective fiction after such a short career, although it seems clear that she had a fulfilling career in the field of crafts that had been her first love. Now a new generation of readers have the chance to enjoy her books thanks to the British Library's policy of republishing almost forgotten authors. This is very good news indeed and Hay's books are well worth reading, especially for lovers of Golden Age mysteries.

Reviewer: Carol Westron

Mavis Doriel Hay (1894-1979) was a novelist of the golden age of British crime fiction. Her three detective novels were published in the 1930s and are now rare and highly collectable books. She was an expert on rural handicraft and wrote several books on the subject. 

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.

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