“Christmas at the castle with holly, handmade gifts, snowflakes and… is that a body under the tree? Someone call Lady Swift!”
- Book: Death On A Winter’s Day (Lady Eleanor Swift mystery book #8)
- Location: Scotland
- Author: Verity Bright
Bravo! This ‘Golden Age’ mystery series just keeps getting better and better!
This has to be Lady Eleanor Swift’s most dangerous case yet. It is certainly the most complex, both in relation to her complicated deducements when trying to narrow down her rather vast array of suspects, but also for her own personal emotional wellbeing, when a story from the past evokes long-forgotten childhood memories. This may also be the case with the most satisfying personal outcome for Ellie, but you’ll need to take the reading journey to decide that for yourself, my lips are sealed!
Being invited as Christmas and New Year guests to a remote island castle, in the middle of a Scottish loch, might sound idyllic, however for Ellie and her butler/guardian/confidante, Clifford, what should have been a relaxing break, has turned into a mammoth operation. Baron Clarence Ashley and the Baroness Wilhelmina, hosts of the seasonal festivities, have been abandoned by most of their devoutly religious Presbyterian staff, who do not celebrate Christmas. As Ellie is a personal friend of the Baron and his wife, the only solution is for her to save the day, by packing up all of the Henley Hall ladies, lock, stock and barrel and taking them with her on the day long journey to reach the castle.
What else could possibly go wrong?… Well!… The weather turns very inclement. The remaining Scottish staff contingent turn positively mutinous and deliberately try to sabotage Christmas. The other guests are a rather morose and argumentative bunch, at odds both with each other and their hosts. To top it all not one, but two dead bodies turn up, and the Baron is arrested for murder. And after helping to solve so many previous murder cases, with scant regard for her own safety and often risking her life in the process, Ellie finds that the sands of time may have finally run out for her and the one she holds so dear to her heart!
This is very much a three dimensional story, which whilst being strongly driven by plot and character, also has the added quality of allowing me to form a genuine sense of time and place, which both beguiles and entices Ellie, yet which might also prove to be her final nemesis. One of the Baron’s guests remembers Ellie’s mother, a lady far ahead of the times and protocols, who died together with her father when she was just a child. He tells the story as they journey to one of the remotest parts of the island, from where they can see in the distance the exact location of one of her mother’s most brave and skilful acts. Later Ellie persuades Clifford to take to her on a perilous journey, so that she can see the site close up for herself, and whilst there the myths and legends surrounding the deed overtake Ellie’s senses, like nothing has phased her before. How much is imagination and how much the overwhelming longing to have her mother back in her life? To Ellie it all seems so real and the entire episode adds another complex layer to this most assured and compelling storyline.
Duplicitous dealings are afoot at the castle, with money, as it so often is, being at the root of all evil and you could ‘cut the atmosphere with a knife’, so tense and claustrophobic it is, when the guests all meet together. The well structured plot moves the action non-stop and seamlessly, thanks to some concise chapters which keep things focussed and fluid, but that doesn’t stop Ellie getting on the wrong side of the local constabulary, who want nothing more than a speedy resolution to the case, without interference from amateur detectives, which riles Ellie no end, especially when there seems to be some ‘greasing of palms’ going on too! Like all organised women, especially one who is so progressive, unconventional and far ahead of the times, Ellie makes copious lists regarding her suspects, their potential motives and their possible modus operandi. These lists are amended and updated with alarming frequency, although as alibis are established and the number of suspects decreases, Ellie feels the full wrath of a miscreant who doesn’t want to face the music and feels vindicated in their reasons for retribution and revenge. Ellie also has a delightful habit of talking to herself, only silently and in her mind. These wonderful speech bubble thought bombs, if laid together, would make a lovely little mini story by themselves, albeit the much more honest and uncensored version! Twists and red herrings liberally sprinkled the storyline and took me off at a tangent several times, so when Clifford takes it upon himself to call in the ‘real detectives’, in the shape of Detective Inspector Hugh Seldon, I was almost as pleased as Ellie herself, who has had something of a lukewarm relationship with Hugh for some time now, which she would quite like to take to the next level, if only she could get him to open up and confide in her.
I am so addicted to this entire, authentic and vibrant cast of Henley Hall characters, I just know that I shall be quite sad when this series eventually comes to an end, which I hope won’t be for some time yet! So wonderfully well drawn and developed are they, the synergy between them and their individual personalities bring the words on the pages to life, so that for the time I am reading, I can immerse myself in their world, even to sitting down with Ellie and Clifford, often ‘below stairs’ in the kitchen, as they try to fathom the whys and wherefores of their latest investigation, whilst devouring copious amounts of Mrs Trotman’s delicious cooking and baking. Although unlike Ellie, I’m sure my figure would suffer after all those wonderful meals and in-between snacks she manages to pile away. She really does have a bottomless pit for a stomach, more like your average teenager than a supposedly refined adult member of the aristocracy, although not having been born into the title and having hitherto led a completely different, independent lifestyle, ‘Lady of the manor’ and the decorum that standing in society demands, still doesn’t sit well with her. Let’s face it, everyone needs a Clifford in their lives. Someone who knows exactly what you are going to say, long before you have even had the thought; who goes into every situation prepared for all eventualities and outcomes; who is never off duty and will always be there for you, even though you may not know you need him; that one person who will devote his existence to your well-being, prepared to lay his own life down for you, to fulfil a man’s dying wish that he take care of his niece.
Every self-respecting amateur sleuth also needs the extra help of the four-legged canine variety and Eleanor is no exception, although Gladstone is usually more of a hindrance than a help, as rousing himself is something he does rarely – and then only when there is the offer of food as recompense for all his efforts. On this occasion, Gladstone is even more conspicuous by his absence, as he is too busy keeping himself warm by the kitchen range, sporting his new Christmas jumper and getting fed plenty of titbits by the Henley Hall ladies!
Lose yourself in this amazing series!