Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Christmas Homecoming by Anne Perry

Caroline Fielding is the mother of Charlotte, who is the wife of the policeman Thomas Pitt. Now married to her second husband, the actor Joshua Fielding, she and he are headed to Whitby, a Yorkshire Fishing village, to read and put on a play of Dracula written by the daughter of a rich man. Ordinarily, the troupe would never do such a thing, but the money that her father is paying them will be used to support other theatrical presentations that the troupe would like to give, so they do their best to make the best of it, and to iron out any problems the play might have before putting it on just after Christmas Day.

Traveling along with the Fieldings are the other actors: Vincent Singer, the man who is to play Van Helsing, Lydia Rye, who will be playing Lucy Westenra, Mercy Carstairs, the lead, who will be playing Mina Murray/Harker and James Hobbs, the other actor, who will be playing Jonathan Harker. Joshua himself will be playing Dracula, and Caroline will be both the book holder, and the person who is in charge of the lighting for the play.

At the house, they meet Alice Netheridge, the woman responsible for writing the attenuated play based on the book, and her father and mother, Charles and Eliza Netheridge, and Alice's fiancee, Douglas Patterson. While her parents are paying the actors to put on the play for Alice to be happy, her fiancee seems to think that she should forget all about any pretensions she has to writing or creativity and settle down to be a simple happy homemaker like her mother- who isn't actually all that happy, as her home was decorated by her husband's mother in a rather overwhelming style she is unhappy with, and she longs to change it, but her husband won't hear of it.

At their arrival at the Netheridge home, a bad snowstorm starts, one which everyone hopes will pass by the time they have to actually stage and give the play. But as they talk over the play, and Alice makes changes to what she has written to make the play better, a new arrival comes to the house. Anton Ballin, a businessman whose carriage was a victim of the storm, arrives to beg shelter until the storm abates. And while his arrival is unfortunate for him, he invigorates the play with his understanding of stagecraft that allows the play to descend into true horror and wrings the best performances from all the actors, and his discussions with Alice, Caroline and the others on the nature of evil allow her to craft an even better play.

Still, one night when Caroline descends to the room where they are to give the play in order to retrieve an article left behind, she trips over Ballin's dead body. But who has killed him? After alerting the Netheridges and the other actors, the family decides to leave the body in place over night and to look for clues in the morning, under better light.

But during the night, the body vanishes, and cannot be found in the house, despite frantic searching. Caroline, against her better opinion, knows that she must look into the death to save the theatre company from being blamed for Ballin's death. For only they are outsiders, and they are also the perfect scapegoats to blame when the storm subsides enough for the magistrate to come calling. But can she discover the true murderer and why Ballin was murdered in the first place? And will the theatre company leave the house intact, or will it split over the subject of the play?

Anne Perry is very good at mysteries and this book is no exception. In her Christmas mysteries, she takes a minor character from one of her other mystery series, one who isn't usually a crime solver, and puts them into a situation where a death occurs on or near Christmas and has them do the heavy lifting work of investigating the crime, usually because they are the only one who can or are the only one who cares to get to the true bottom of the mystery.

And this one is very good. Not quite a locked room mystery, but more of a locked house mystery, with a limited number of suspects and a missing body. There are two good suspects right away- one an actor, the other a member of the family, and both have unpleasant personalities, so she can't be accused of using "Unpleasant character is evil and therefore the murderer by default" excuse. But we get to see that one of them is not too bad, so, in a way, the unpleasant character does point the way to who really dunnit.

Yes, it's a bit formulaic, but it's also never dull, and despite the small number of pages, the characters seem fully realized, even if we don't get to see them onstage very often. The mystery and the denouement are wholly satisfying, even if the bit of information we need to identify the how and why of the murder isn't revealed until almost the last moment. Still, the excellent writing will make you forget the cliché nature of the story right until the very end, and it's still a satisfying mystery. Recommended.

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