As I'm enjoying celebrating the holiday with family, I'm reminded of the days when the Christmas season semi-officially began the day after Thanksgiving, instead of the three-month-long season we have now. So in honor of the traditions of yesteryear, I'm reposting an FFB post from a few years ago—doing my part to kick off the Christmas season.
Most people know him as creator of the now-classic Yorkshire detective duo Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe and for his Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. But author Reginald Hill is also known as Patrick Ruell, publishing eight novels under that pen name beginning with The Castle of the Demon in 1971. Whereas most of his books, including the Dalziel and Pascoe series, are police procedurals or P.I. novels, the Patrick Ruell stories are what Mike Ripley of Shots Ezine calls "slightly surreal and very funny thrillers."
In 1972's Red Christmas, a group of strangers are on a Christmas Eve trip for a Dickensian weekend at Dingley Dell. They have seemingly nothing in common: Jules and Suzie Leclerc, a French couple; Arabella Allen, a 23-year-old English lass; and Stephen Swinburne, a "young many of great beauty." They're ensconced in the Dingley Dell manor along with other guests, including a German couple dubbed "Herr Bear" and "Frau Cow" and an American party-crasher, Robert E. Lee Sawyer, all under the watchful eye of the hosts, Wardle and Boswell.
But the festivities soon take a less cheery turn when one of the servants has an accident near a quarry on the property and is taken to the hospital. Arabella soon learns that behind the facade of good-will-toward-men hides conspiracy and intrigue when she learns she's being spied upon. Things take an even nastier turn when she stumbles upon the dead body of the servant who was supposedly recuperating in the hospital. Then the grinning face of yet another corpse is seen buried beneath the ice in a skating pond just as a blizzard is blowing in — and their only means of communication with the outside world, a radio, is sabotaged. As Arabella delves deeper, aided by her growing reliance upon Boswell, who is at the center of the mystery, she finds herself in the thick of an international spy ring, with double-cross and murder all part of the game.
I rather like Robert Barnard's foreword to the Black Dagger reissue from 1995, where he says "The action is fast and furious, the characterisation light but deft, the climax thrilling and satisfying. It is, no doubt about it, a heady brew, such as might have been served at the original Dingley Dell, and just as the Christmas season. Take emergency rations and a bottle of your favorite tipple, retreat to your study and lock out the family, then settle down to a rollicking good read. With a bit of luck it will last you the whole of Christmas Day."
The omniscient head-hopping is a bit dizzying at times, but it serves its purpose of keeping you unsteady and wondering just who is telling the truth and who is not. It's an anti-Christmas romp, so to speak, although there's plenty of spiked punch and red and green in the form of blood and forests and even a Christmas tree used as a diversion. If you get your fill of overly-sweet desserts and watch It's a Wonderful Life too many times, then Red Christmas might just be the antidote.