Mystery writers, especially those writing in the British "cosy" sub-genre, have access to a vast selection of tropes, schemes and clichés that run scattershot across the canon and are all the more enjoyable for their repetition: weekend country house murders. Upstairs-downstairs tensions. Priest-detectives.
C.C. Benison (the pen name for Winnipeg writer and editor Doug Whiteway) pays cheerful homage to an astonishing number of these clichés in Ten Lords A-Leaping, the third instalment of his Father Christmas series, and arguably its wildest, funniest --and strangest-- episode yet.
Set on the fictional English estate of Eggescombe Park, Lords quickly gathers all the ingredients necessary to set a lethal brew a-boiling. The aristocratic fford-Beckett family, fragmented by scandal, ambition and money, is reunited at Eggescombe for a skydiving charity event: the Leaping Lords, along with Vicar Tom Christmas himself, are jumping from 20,000 feet to raise money for repairs to Christmas' parish church.
Oliver fford-Beckett, the seventh Marquess of Morborne, and his brother-in-law Hector, the 10th Earl of Fairhaven, are two of the "leaping lords," and when the routine is disturbed by fisticuffs in midair, it becomes clear that their relationship is quickly going south.
Everyone lands safely, except Christmas, who twists his ankle and is forced to remain at the estate overnight. And in the morning, it's the hapless priest who finds Oliver lying throttled in the heart of the estate's ancient labyrinth.
Adding to Christmas's smorgasbord of discomfort: taciturn, secretive family servants, the Eggescombe men's propensity to performing daily activities in the nude, and the beautiful Lucinda, Oliver's half-sister, striking a seductive pose around every corner.
Lords contains a bewildering number of characters, some of whom also appear in Twelve Drummers Drumming and Eleven Pipers Piping, and almost all of whom look guilty at one point or another.
Even readers familiar with the series should be warned that to track the convolutions of the plot requires many references to the family tree and cast of characters provided at the beginning of the novel.
Benison's humour is abundantly evident in Lords, from the characters' obsession with the ominous atmosphere at Eggescombe Park before the murderer strikes ("'Perhaps the ghost of Eggescombe is set to walk tonight. There is a full moon'") to their near-universal, naked hatred of the murdered Olly ("He's the sort who can drink and smoke and take drugs and whore around and live forever, so presuming that someone killed him... is not a leap in logic.")
While Lords is occasionally swampy with plot contusions and the various, cut-glass intrigues of its aristocratic cast, its merry tone saves it, along with Benison's unabashed delight in serving up so many clichés on a platter.
"How terribly Agatha Christie," a character remarks when Det. Insp. Bliss gathers the suspects together to review the facts of the case.
But it's also held together by the warmth of Christmas himself: humble, vulnerable and prone to both temptation and prayer, he's the kind of hero who is capable of reminding us that untimely death "demands justice," whatever the character of the slain, and that "reason must rule passion." Lords boasts both, but adds laughter.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.