The Twelve Clues of Christmas, Rhys Bowen
I was lucky enough to hear Rhys Bowen speak at Houston's Murder by the Book soon after this book was published in early November, and to get my copy signed, but I saved it to read closer to Christmas. This year my holiday-themed reading has been mysteries and mayhem, and The Twelve Clues of Christmas fit right in perfectly.
This is the sixth book in the "Royal Spyness" series, set in the early 1930s. The main character is Lady Georgiana Rannoch, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria who is 35th in line for the throne (a newly-born niece just bumped her down from 34th). Her father the Duke of Rannoch left the family saddled with gambling debts and death duties, and Georgie has no income of her own. Despite increasing pressure from her sister-in-law to marry, to get her off the family's hands, she has so far avoided the frequent fate of minor royals: marriage to an equally minor European prince, or service as lady in waiting to one of her elderly royal aunts. Instead, Georgie has attempted to make an independent life for herself in London. But she has discovered that her royal status, however minor, combined with her lack of qualifications, make finding work all but impossible. Her attempts have come to the attention of Buckingham Palace, though, and her cousin Queen Mary has asked her to take on some small commissions, some of which have involved her in murder cases. Yet in the end, Georgie usually has to return to the family home in Scotland and the complaints of her sister-in-law Fig.
As this book opens, she is contemplating the horrors of Christmas spent not just with Fig but also with Fig's even more unpleasant family. Then she sees an advertisement in The Lady: "Young woman of impeccable background to assist hostess with the social duties of large Christmas house party." Five days later, she is on her way to Devon, to Gorzley Hall in Tiddleton-under-Lovey. She arrives to find there has been an incident, a neighbor shot and killed in the Hall's orchard. The police believe it was an accident, though they can't explain why the man was up in a tree at the time. But then there is another death the next day, an elderly woman, living quietly with her two sisters. Georgie also learns that the house party is not exactly what is seems. As other deaths follow, the police dismiss them as accidents too, but she believes there must be a connection, and she draws on her previous detective work to investigate. At the same time, she joins her employer/hostess Lady Hawse-Gorzley in entertaining the house party with Christmas activities and games, in between sumptuous meals. Despite her growing sense of danger, Georgie can't help enjoying herself, far from the austerities of Castle Rannoch. To her delight, the guests include the Hon. Darcy O'Mara, the son of an equally impoverished Irish peer, who has shared several of her adventures and with whom she has fallen unsuitably in love.
I really enjoyed this book. Georgie is a great character and a very sympathetic one, and you can't help hoping that she will find her way to independence and happiness with Darcy (let alone escape from the awful Fig). The setting is such fun, combining a classic country-house murder in a small village with all the traditional holiday activities (there is an appendix that provides more information and even recipes). I spent a much less eventful Christmas in Devon myself many years ago, when my father had a teaching exchange at the University of Exeter. The story is also very clever, with quite an exciting denouement. As usual I missed out completely on the clues, including the title itself, but as usual I was having too much fun to mind. I look forward to seeing where Georgie's next adventure takes her - back to London, for a start.