A recent Christmas tradition here on the Ramblings has been to read, enjoy and write about whichever marvellous Crime Classic the British Library has chosen to rediscover as their Christmas title. There have been some really great books and stories making a festive reappearance – sometimes a full novel, and sometimes an anthology, they’re always the perfect comforting read at this time of year.

However, this year the BL have gone for something quite quirky in the form of “Murder After Christmas” by Rupert Latimer; not only is the title intriguing, but the story itself is really entertaining, taking many of the tropes of detective fiction and giving them a bit of twist!

During the next few days it stopped snowing and thawed overnight, froze again and snowed again. The village streets became impassible. Deplenished of traffic, St. Aubyns became more full of life than usual, the village pond being black with skaters and the surrounding hills squirming with tobogganing children. The proud young possessor of a pair of skis paraded the roads, ubiquitously aloof from his less fortunate elders who crept gingerly around familiar corners which had now become death-traps for the unwary. It was soon no unusual sight to find middle-aged ladies lying prone in gutters and sober, normally upright characters moving slowly uphill, virtually on their hands and knees.

The action takes place during Word War 2, and features the Redpath family plus a wide array of relatives and contacts. Frank and Rhoda Redpath are living in the country with Aunt Polina, and owing to the privations of War they’re obliged to invite their Uncle Willie for Christmas. Uncle Willie, otherwise known as the stinking rich and fiercely grumpy Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, is truculent and single-minded, and as the book continues it appears that just about everyone concerned would be happier if he was dead. There are any number of greedy ex-wives, children and step-children and general hangers-on who think they deserve a chunk of his fortune; and in fact even the Redpaths would not be averse to a little of the funds coming their way.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Uncle Willie is found dead after Christmas, and in quite outre circumstances. However, it’s hard for the local police to get a handle on who did the murder as there are frankly so many people with a motive! There are hints of all kind of family secrets, as well as a number of marriages, children and assorted dependants with an interest in Willie’s fortune, as well as a rather bluff and clueless Chief Constable, Major Smythe (who’s also an old friend of the deceased). Faced with all this obfuscation and confusion, it’s a miracle that Superintendant Culley manages to come to any kind of sensible solution…

“Murder..” is a very clever book with what is quite a convoluted plot, all manner of red herrings and a cast of characters from which frankly anyone could be picked out as the murderer! Uncle Willie was a pretty insufferable man who’d lived such a long and complex life that he seemed to have made enemies everywhere. As well as that, with jobs and money tight during the war, there’s the impetus for just about everyone to want to try to get their hands on his money! The supporting cast members were a lively and entertaining bunch, and I was particularly taken with Aunt Polina, a wonderfully drawn character who appeared on the surface to be quite innocent and demure, but obviously had much going on underneath the placid exterior!

‘With so many detective stories written, murdering people has become a kind of intellectual sport nowadays,’ said Frank.

I found “Murder” very entertaining, if occasionally a little exhausting; the flippancies of the Redpaths, the constant confessions and the repartee sometimes felt slightly overwhelming! But the book was often very funny, almost meta in its references to what would happen in a real detective story, and I did enjoy the way Latimer played with the conventions of detective fiction. Much of the plot hung on an element which had a significant part in one of my favourite Golden Age crime books (I shall say no more) and it’s very cleverly worked in here. Interestingly, the War is a more discreet presence in the background than, say, a Lorac book, but that could well be because the story isn’t set in London.

First published in 1944, “Murder…” was Latimer’s second crime novel, after a career taking in acting and non-detective fiction. Having suffered ill health for most of his life, he died tragically young from a brain tumour, and it’s a great shame that his writing life was cut off so soon. It’s clear from this book that he was a really talented author and it would have been lovely to see what mysteries he came up with later on. The book comes with the usual useful introduction by Martin Edwards, and is another excellent entry into the British Library crime classics catalogue – there really is so much variety in these wonderful books!