Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story - Anne Meredith

Themis reviewed this one last year for the Penance Day task, and her rationale is convincing enough that I may end up sliding it in there. At this point, though, I've completed several of the Penance Day tasks, so I figure I'll hold onto it and see if it fits somewhere else first.

 

This was an oddly intriguing mystery. It took me some time to get into it, but once I was hooked, I was really hooked and couldn't set it down. In spite of the fact that we know who the murderer is from the moment that the murder occurs (it's really more a manslaughter than a murder), it's the first - possibly the only - Golden Age mystery that I've read where I genuinely thought that the wrong person might hang for the murder. This was a clever plot device because it really did keep the tension high for me, even though there were no secrets to be revealed.

 

This book fits neatly into one of my favorite book categories: English country house Christmas murder mystery. While the author does keep the festivities to a minimum, the murder occurs on Christmas Eve. The victim, yet another stingy patriarch, is the sort of petty domestic tyrant that the members of the Detection Club specialized in creating. Were all old English men such maliciously awful people? One wonders...

 

One of the things that I did admire about the book was the success that Meredith had in creating individual characters - all too often in these books, the siblings (suspects) sort of blend together and it's hard to remember whose who. Not so in this family. 

 

I also enjoyed the fact that there are a few (very few, but a few) very likeable characters mixed in with the rest of this miserable family. Miles Amerey has married the youngest daughter of Adrian Gray, Ruth, and they have a sweet and happy marriage. Miles is unambitiously happy as a mundane solicitor, in contrast to the two strivers in the family: Richard, the eldest, an MP who desperately wants his father to buy him a title, and whose just a noxious social climber, and Eustace, who has married one of the Gray daughters, and who is a "financier" (i.e., swindler) who seems to have managed to waste the entire family fortune, along with the fortunes of countless working class families, through his fraudulent dealing.

 

I also really liked the two women who seem to come to life throughout the events of the book: Isobel, the youngest daughter, whose been dispatched home by her husband after her child dies and he decides he just can't deal with her anymore, and Richard's wife, Laura, who has some sort of an intellectual awakening as Richard's life falls apart, in which she realizes that everything that they have been working for is an illusion. I would have loved to see more of these two characters, because I found their tangential story lines really interesting.

 

Martin Edwards wrote the Forward to this one, and mentioned that many of the members of the Detection Club would use one another's names in their books. He pointed out that Agatha Christie named one of the characters in Cards on the Table "Anne Meredith" after the author.

 

This was a library copy, and while I did enjoy it, it isn't Christmassy enough to make it into my holiday rotation. The cover is gorgeous, though - even better in person!