on Nov. 6, 2012
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Also in this series: Heirs and Graces
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me—well, actually, my true love, Darcy O’Mara, is spending a feliz navidad tramping around South America. Meanwhile, Mummy is holed up in a tiny village called Tiddleton-under-Lovey with that droll Noel Coward! And I’m snowed in at Castle Rannoch with my bumbling brother, Binky, and sourpuss sister-in-law, Fig.
So it’s a miracle when I contrive to land a position as hostess to a posh holiday party in Tiddleton. The village is like something out of A Christmas Carol! But no sooner have I arrived than a neighborhood nuisance, a fellow named Freddie falls out of a tree, dead…. Dickensian, indeed.
Freddie’s merely a stocking stuffer. On my second day in town, another so-called accident turns up another mincemeat pie—and yet another on my third. The village is buzzing that a recent prison break could have something to do with it… that, or a long-standing witch’s curse. I’m not so sure. But after Darcy shows up beneath the mistletoe, anything could be possible in this wicked wonderland.
I read The Twelve Clues of Christmas right on the heels of finishing Carola Dunn’s Gone West. The similarities between the series (though not between these particular titles) are immediately obvious. Both are “cozy” mystery series set in 1920s Britain. Both are relatively light and feature an intrepid heroine who happens to be a member of the aristocracy: Dunn’s Daisy is the daughter of a viscount, while Bowen’s Lady Georgiana (“Georgie” to her friends) is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and 34th in line for the throne (now 35th, with the birth of her brother the duke’s second child.)
Yet for all the similarities, there are enough differences to give each series a distinct and individual ambience. Dunn’s books are slightly grittier, a little more realistic, and as often set among the middle-class as among the aristocracy. Bowen’s Royal Spyness books are lighter and funnier even when, as in the latest mystery, victims are dropping like flies (at the rate of one per day!) They’re almost always set among the upper class and the famous – Noel Coward is an ancillary character in the current novel, while the last one included fashion designer Coco Chanel. Georgie narrates the Royal Spyness series in first person, whereas Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries are third person; whenever Daisy’s detective inspector husband arrives on the scene, the narrative focuses as much on his investigation as on Daisy’s.
What makes the Royal Spyness series so much fun are the characters. I really love Georgie. She’s intrepid and independent-minded, and remains optimistically determined despite her penury and complete lack of marketable job skills. She can be remarkably resourceful, but she’s also impetuous and alarmingly fearless. The attraction between Georgie and Darcy, her handsome, devil-may-care beau (mysterious spy and heir to a lord more impecunious than Georgie’s brother) is delicious, the more so for Bowen’s skillful drawing out of the sexual tension between them. [Semi-spoiler alert: There’s a seeming resolution of Georgie and Darcy’s relationship toward the end of The Twelve Clues of Christmas, which leaves plenty of room for Bowen to keep the tension going for several more novels, at least.] Georgie’s family is delightfully (and usefully) mismatched, from her royal relatives and her conventional brother Binky to her flamboyant actress mother and working-class grandfather, a former copper. The house guests and other assorted characters in this novel are equally diverting in their own ways, though I expected a bit more clever repartee from Noel Coward.
The Twelve Clues of Christmas follows in the traditional country-house-party and village mystery tradition, with several twists: the house party includes paying guests, there are not one but three escaped convicts on the loose (escaped from nearby Dartmoor prison; rest assured that the moor plays its own traditional part), and most of the victims aren’t members of the house party, but people from the nearby village and town. It’s also not clear for some time to anyone except a suspicious Georgie that the deaths are anything but accident – let alone that there is any pattern. I advise readers to pay close attention to the book’s title; you may catch on sooner than I did. (In my defense, I was working on an frustratingly long and complex project, and this mystery was my escape from all the thinking that project required.)
Despite the carnage, kept for the most part tastefully off-stage, I thoroughly enjoyed The Twelve Clues of Christmas. In fact, I think it’s among my favorite Royal Spyness mysteries so far, in part because it pays tribute to so many cozy mystery tropes. The savvy reader will recognize nods to Christie, Doyle, and other classic mystery authors. If you’re in the mood for a light mystery with some laugh-out-loud moments as well as a modicum of suspense, you could do a lot worse than pick up Bowen’s latest.
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Challenges: Read for the Cruisin’ through the Cozies 2013 challenge.