Title: Portrait of a Murderer
Author: Anne Meredith (pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson)
Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray’s six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve – and by the following morning, their wish has been granted. This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next.
Indeed, I have never been so much ashamed of anything, without being in the least sorry.
It’s hard to read the first chapters of this book without thinking of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (which was published a few years later). We have a Christmas party in a family with little love lost between the different members. Most of the children have money-troubles and unhappy marriages. And then the patriarch who is an all-around horrible person gets murdered.
However, unlike in Christie’s book, it wasn’t a carefully planned deed but simply the result of one child losing their temper after hearing yet again that they are useless. And we know that because we are there when it happens. We see what the killer does afterwards to cover up their tracks and frame a different family member and what they do once the murder is discovered.
And in these parts, the book really shines because it doesn’t portray this as a black-or-white situation. The murderer is no unfeeling psychopath. In between all the siblings who barely tolerate each other, they have a quite close relationship with one sister and try to help her. But neither are they a poor innocent soul who lost their temper only once. We see what they think about the other sibling and their own family. (And, after all, they have no problem framing someone else). Even without the murder, it’s clear that they aren’t a very good person. But we also learn about their past and how they were treated by others (especially the father) and the tragedies that happened in their life. And I couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been different if certain things wouldn’t have happened.
Mind you all that doesn’t mean the murderer is likeable. They made enough despicable decisions apart from the murder. But that was exactly what made the story so fascinating (and slightly disconcerting ) for me. Most killers aren’t the pure evil we see on Criminal Minds. Neither are they avenging angels like Dexter who only kill bad people. Most of them aren’t even the type you see in Agatha Christie novels, who plan carefully and built elaborate contraptions to make it seem like they have an alibi. Most killers are exactly like the one in this book: a worse person than the average but it’s still easy to see that if one or two things had gone differently they would have gone through life as a bad person who never killed anybody.
There are still things that are not great about this book. Like the not exactly subtle antisemitism. One son-in-law is Jewish and – of course – a banker and – of course – a fraud who ruined lots of people. Any comments about this are mostly limited to one chapter and then not brought up again. It’s also not a major plot-point, it’s just there like so often in novels from that time. I have read worse (hello Greenmantle) and I can’t deny I enjoyed the book anyway. I will think twice about picking up another book by the author, though.
Then, once the murder is committed, we don’t only follow the killer, we see how the whole family reacts to the events. It changes them. And for all the characters that were at least somewhat likeable, things get better. They decide to live their life again, their situation improves, abused children get better homes…it’s an odd contrast to the rest of the rather dark story.
And then there’s the unnecessary information. We get pages of backstory for the inspector who appears once and does little to solve the crime. We learn a lot about the things the victim did during and before the war, which would have made a good red herring in an ordinary crime-story but served no purpose here. The oldest daughter-in-law reminisces in depth about one of her maids who left the household long before the story starts. Sometimes it feels like the author is trying to make a point with these asides but I can’t make out what. Sometimes all it seems to do is fill the pages.
I would still recommend this book to everyone who wants to read a very different golden age mystery.
ARC provided by NetGalley