Because we are only a few days away from Christmas, I'd like to wish a very merry one to those who celebrate it. In fact, I'd like to offer, as a holiday gift, my review of a fine and funny thriller by Michael Innes, a 1953 book called Christmas at Candleshoe which I recommend strongly to you. Of course, it's probably not the Christmas you expect...
Here's a slightly edited version of my review from nine years ago, brought back From the Vault for your enjoyment:
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I have a very unusual kind of Christmas mystery for you today. It’s set in a crumbling old English manor house. So far so good. But wait. First of all, there’s no murder – barely. But there is a damsel in distress – who happens to be in her nineties. There are some children, who will risk a great deal to protect her. A couple of Americans who may or may not be on their side. Some nefarious and largely unseen people set to make a determined assault on the house. Oh, and it’s set on a mid-summer evening. An odd Christmas story indeed – it’s Christmas at Candleshoe, by Michael Innes.
The Christmas, in this case, is not the holiday – it is the artist, Gerard Christmas, a seventeenth-century carver, as he is described, a designer of funeral monuments, holder of the position “carver to the navy,” and so forth. Really – I’m not making him up; he was a real person.
Candleshoe, however, is not real – it is the crumbling manor house I mentioned earlier, and the setting for a perfectly delightful mystery by Michael Innes. Innes wrote a couple of mystery series – the best known of them featuring John Appleby, the Scotland Yard detective who matures through the series, starting out as a fairly young inspector and winding up as a commissioner. Some of his best books, however, have not been part of any series – books like The Case of the Journeying Boy, for example. Christmas at Candleshoe is another non-series mystery, and, I think, a very good one.
The best way I can describe Christmas at Candleshoe, and the technique Innes uses to tell his story, is to say that it is rather like peeling an onion, layer by layer. Events at first seem to be impossible to explain or to comprehend, but each successive chapter and incident sheds a little more light on what is really going on under the surface. Innes also writes a good deal of the book in the present tense, which gives us the impression that we are seeing the action as it takes place – and as its characters see it.
The story begins as we follow a group of tourists around another mansion, Benison Court, the estate of the Marquess of Scattergood. Bit by bit, we focus in – first on Lord Scattergood and his family, but then on a young American visitor, Grant Feather, and his mother, a very wealthy woman who may want to buy an English estate and settle down.
After leaving Benison Court, Grant wants to go to a nearby hotel and settle down for the night. But his mother discovers another estate nearby – one that isn’t on the tourist maps. This is Candleshoe. It turns out to be an ancient and – as we will discover – decrepit mansion. And there are odd things happening, as the Feathers approach – a young boy begins shooting arrows near them with warning messages to steer clear.
But the Feathers proceed to Candleshoe and meet both the woman who owns the estate – the elderly Miss Candleshoe – and her nearly-as-ancient chaplain of her private chapel, a Mr. Armigel.
Innes accomplishes all this with a very quietly understated wit. It is not clear, at first, whether the very funny misunderstandings in the conversation are a result of the elderly Candleshoe residents being hard of hearing – or deliberately changing the subject. For example, as the Feathers are introduced to Miss Candleshoe, there is polite conversation – at first discussing the bowling-green on the property. At this point, Grant wants to learn about the boy who seems to have been warning them away from the place. Here is a bit of the dialogue:
'The gardeners must see to it.' Miss Candleshoe pauses and sips Madeira. 'If there are any gardeners that is to say. Since my brother Sir James died several years ago, we have been obliged a little to cut down on one side and another. But the topiary, at least, is in tolerable order. The children, I am told, see to that.'
Here is something about which Grant wants to know. 'Then you do have kids living here?' He asks.
'At the moment, only a solitary goat.' Mr. Armigel seems to offer this reply in perfectly good faith. 'But the poultry are very flourishing, I am glad to say.'
Now this kind of dialogue persists – and, as I say, Innes exhibits a dry humor that is entirely in keeping with the story.
For when Grant finally does meet the children mentioned by Miss Candleshoe, he discovers that there is something rather sinister going on. The house is quite isolated – and Grant’s car has been deliberately made inoperative. It appears that there are some people outside who want to get into the house and don’t want to be disturbed by police or anyone else.
Why? As Grant learns, there are legends about treasure, hidden somewhere in Candleshoe – probably within or near a large piece of carving by Geoffrey Christmas, which is mouldering away up in an ancient gallery within the mansion. It is believed to hold treasure, but the secret of opening it has been lost.
And so Grant and the children find themselves defending Candleshoe – although they are not sure what they are defending, or whom they are defending it against. Lord Scattergood and his family also become involved in the affair, on the side of the defenders. It is all done in very good humor – although the attack on Candleshoe, when it comes, is certainly serious enough.
Christmas at Candleshoe is a delightful read. It does have some of the literary references we would expect in a Michael Innes novel, but they are not intrusive. It’s a good if rather gentle book, with remarkably little bloodshed.
One other note: in the late 1970s, Disney released a movie version – called simply Candleshoe – based VERY loosely on the Innes novel. It had a wonderful cast, headed by Helen Hayes and David Niven and a teenaged Jodie Foster as the leader of the children. The DVD is still available – but, again, it is only loosely based on the novel.
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To listen to the original podcast review, please click here.
Next week, a touch of history: The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey