Extract: Murder For Christmas by Francis Duncan
Murder For Christmas is an extraordinary murder mystery by classic author Francis Duncan. First published in 1949, the novel is the perfect read for the festive season – giving us mulled wine, mince pies and murder.
Mordecai Tremaine, former tobacconist and perennial lover of romance novels, has been invited to spend Christmas in the sleepy village of Sherbroome at the country retreat of one Benedict Grame. Arriving on Christmas Eve, he finds that the revelries are in full flow – but so too are tensions amongst the assortment of guests. Midnight strikes and the party-goers discover that it’s not just presents nestling under the tree – there’s a dead body too. A dead body that bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas. With the snow falling and the suspicions flying, it’s up to Mordecai to sniff out the culprit and prevent someone else from getting murder for Christmas.
But until recently the real puzzle was the inexplicable absence of any biographical information available about Francis Duncan himself. Despite extensive research, all that could be uncovered was the fact that the author wrote and published a number of crime novels across 20 years from 1937. A true man of mystery if ever there was one – until Murder For Christmas was brought back into print, that is, and his family came forward to shed light on the elusive author.
Read on for an extract from Murder For Christmas…
Murder For Christmas
No one could have foretold how it was going to end. Not even the murderer.
It is not to say that the crime was hastily conceived and clumsily executed. The majority of murderers are anxious to live to savour the fruits of their villainies. They realize that one slip may deliver them to the hangman. They know that to be careless is to be lost. And in this case the murderer was possessed both of the desire to profit and of the knowledge of how perilously thin is the dividing line between safety and disaster.
But no human plan, however devilish its ingenuity, can be depended upon to follow out in practice the exact lines of its careful theory. Somewhere along the route, incalculable, unforeseeable, will lie the unexpected, the unknown factor.
The moon was like a spotlight, playing over the stage of a theatre. Or, like a camera, tracking over a studio floor and alternately presenting to its audience close-up and long-shot, sharply outlined image and sombre obscurity.
The snow had stopped but the sky had not yet cleared. The clouds were drifting sullenly, as if reluctant to leave a prey freed only with difficulty from their grip. Sometimes they would gather menacingly upon each other and would crowd over an earth grown dark and full of fear; and then it would seem that they were thrust impotently apart and the white light would flood down, cold and revealing, and not to be turned aside.
And in the moonlight every detail would be there in hard relief. The black-and-white roofs of the village under the hill; the thin bare arms of the trees along the roadway; the smooth white downs rolling up to the sky; the big house with its old grey stones and the white tracery where the snow clung to the creeper.
From the village came the sound of a bell. When the darkness was triumphant it was a strange and mournful echo that could not be located and that held a note of menace. Imagination needed little encouragement to liken it to the tolling of doom.
But when the scene lay exposed under the moon the fear and the mystery were driven back. The bell was no longer sinister. It was a glad sound of music that carried triumphantly across the snow, ringing out from the square tower of the ancient church.
The landscape was a Christmas card in three dimensions. There would have been no incongruity if a sleigh drawn by reindeer had come sweeping over the brow of the downs. It did not, in fact, seem fantastic that the red-robed figure of Father Christmas was outlined in the moonlight, moving quickly along the terrace of the big house. It was, after all, Christmas Eve, when such things—particularly in such a setting—were to be expected.
Although it was late the occupants of the house were not all in their beds. High up in one wing a light still burned. At intervals a figure crossed the illuminated frame that was the window.
There were other signs of activity that were not quite so apparent. But if one watched carefully it was sometimes possible, especially when the moon was obscured, to see a faint glow behind the windows of the ground floor. It was a glow that changed its position, as though it owed its origin to a torch carried by someone who moved stealthily within the house.
And outside in the snow and the shadows there were muffled, hidden figures. Concealed from the house and from each other they watched intently—and waited upon opportunity.
The atmosphere was brooding, tense with foreboding. Fantasy and mystery, violence and death were abroad. It seemed that time was moving reluctantly and with an ever more tightly coiled dread towards some terrible climax.
And at last the climax came.
It came when the bell had stopped. It came when the moonlight, searching again through the clouds, swept softly across the white lawns, revealing the ragged line of footprints. It came when the cold light flooded up to the half-open french windows and, tracing the moisture on the polished floor, came to rest upon the red thing of horror that was Father Christmas, stark and sprawled upon its face in front of the despoiled Christmas tree.
It came with a woman’s scream—desperate, high-pitched and raw with terror.