As you know, I love a bit of cosy crime. I’ve enjoyed reading Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle for as long as I can remember. More than anything, I have an affinity for the novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction. Just give me a whodunnit in a country house, an amateur sleuth and plenty of red herrings. That’s all I really need. Modern crime fiction is getting too pretentious for my liking. It’s trying to be more like television and it’s getting ridiculous. So, when this contemporary version of a Golden Age novel I knew that I had to give it a go. I’m always wary of books that get compared to Agatha Christie because no modern writer has ever been able to match her genius. Still, I’m always hopefully that someone will come close.
There’s nothing quite like a murder mystery at Christmas to get the blood pumping. The stark contrast between the warmth of the festive spirit and cold-blooded murder just works perfectly. It’s something that many writers knew during the Golden Age of crime fiction and most of the greats had a crack at a festive whodunnit. So, it makes sense that Ada Moncrieff’s debut novel Murder Most Festive would be set at Christmas. The story is a pastiche of a Golden Age whodunnit and it’s clear from the start that the writer has jumped headfirst into her own illusion. There can be no denying that Moncrieff is feeling her Agatha Christie fantasy but, as we know, nobody can compete with the Queen of Crime.
Set at the country house of Lord and Lady Westbury, the book sees the festive celebrations put on hold as a body is discovered in the snow on Christmas morning. The victim is David Campbell-Scott who has recently returned to England for the first time in 10 years. Though the deceased man was the childhood friend of Lord Westbury not everyone was quite as fond of him. Amateur sleuth Hugh Gaveston takes it upon himself to investigate and quickly find that many of their party had reason to want David dead. But who would any of them actually have what it takes to go through with it?
As you can see, there are plenty of tropes that have long been associated with the Golden Age of crime writing. We have the country house setting, the landed gentry, the amateur sleuth with a love of detective novels, and a large group of potential suspects. However, recreating the feel of these types of books takes a lot more than simply ticking off boxes on a checklist. You need to understand human behaviour and be able to work out why people turn to murder. Then there’s the writing which, on the surface, appears simple but is carefully crafted to appear natural. The dialogue has to be smart and witty in equal measure and the investigation has to move organically. Then there’s the big reveal. Ideally, it needs to be a shock but one that makes absolute sense once the evidence has been compiled.
So, did Ada Moncrieff manage to recreate this type of novel? No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. My major issue with this story isn’t the fact that the killer is so obvious from the off. It isn’t the fact that there are several obvious clues that our great sleuth misses completely. It isn’t even the fact that the story itself is thin and the characterisations even thinner. It’s the writing. Moncrieff adopts a faux archaic style and it’s an absolute nightmare to read. The writing is flowery but not in a lyrical or poetic way. It sounds manufactured rather than organic. As though she learned about how the landed gentry spoke from really bad costume dramas. Nobody speaks like a real person and all of the dialogue is littered with clunky and unnecessary metaphors.
The whole book is also incredibly repetitive. I’d be more than willing to believe that the writer was paid by the word because the narrative is stretched out for all it’s worth. There were times when the writing was so bad that I got angry and had to take a break. This isn’t a book that flows organically. It feels awkward and unnatural. Then there are the moments when she breaks the fourth wall and it adds absolutely nothing to the story. They feel more like stage directions and really break the flow of the story. Obviously, somebody thought that they were really clever and postmodern but it’s just a stupid gimmick. So much of this book feels like a cheap sketch about the 1930s that isn’t as funny as it thinks it is.
I didn’t exactly go into this thinking that I was going to love it but I did hope that it would go better than this. Though, I should have realised based on the terrible and really uninspired title. Whoever gave that the greenlight needs to have a word with themselves. As a whodunnit, Murder Most Festive isn’t a mystery and it isn’t a very compelling read. It’s infuriating in sections. I mean, the supposed fan of detective fiction completely misunderstands the dynamics of blackmail at the beginning so sets off on completely the wrong path. It doesn’t make sense. Then there’s the historical setting, which is nothing more than a gimmick to draw unsuspecting readers in. The book also doesn’t really evoke the era in which it is set. It’s easy to read beyond the lines with the knowledge that we have in 2020 but this book tells us very little about 1930s Britain. This is not a clever book nor does it possess the charm of true Golden Age crime writing. It’s just disappointing on every level.