- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me. 12 Drummers Drumming 11 Pipers Piping 10 Lords-a-Leaping 9 Ladies Dancing 8 Maids-a-Milking 7 Swans-a-Swimming 6 Geese-a-Laying 5 Gold Rings 4 Colly Birds 3 French Hens 2 Turtle Doves And a Partridge in a Pear Tree. — Traditional English Christmas song
The lords in C.C. Benison’s “Ten Lords A-Leaping” (Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, 512 pages, $25.00) literally leap from a skydiving aircraft at the stately home of Eggescomb Park in England’s Devonshire, the famous West Country county known for Dartmoor and Bodmin Heath — and also the home county of Benison’s Father Tom Christmas, vicar of St. Nicholas Church in nearby Thornford Regis.
This is a Christmas novel, but not the kind most readers think of, since the action in “Ten Lords A-Leaping” takes place in August. The lords are just that, members of the aristocracy, ten skydiving earls, marquesses, viscounts, etc. who perform for charity — in this case to benefit the building fund of Father Tom’s church.
My first exposure to Benison’s series was “Twelve Drummers Drumming” which I reviewed in October 2011… link: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/12132. I missed “Eleven Pipers Piping” which was published in 2012. With this series, Benison has breathed new life into the classic murder and intrigue at an English country house genre.
Father Tom’s 40th birthday is a few days away and he decides to skydive with the ten lords. A magician before he received the call, Tom Christmas is open to new things, including jumping out of a perfectly good airplane flying out of the Plymouth airport. He lands more or less safely, spraining his right ankle, but the tension between two of the leaping lords is obvious to other divers and spectators on terra firma.
The tension between the two lords involved in the mid-air punch-up — Oliver, the 7th Marquess of Morborne, and his brother-in-law Hector, the 10th Earl of Fairhaven — is just the latest manifestation of what really began a generation ago, when a marquess divorced his first spouse to marry his brother’s wife, fathering in his two marriages a viper’s nest of arrogant young aristocrats.
Both Oliver, a flamboyant musical entrepreneur and the owner of London’s trendiest club, and Hector land safely, but death lurks on the grounds of the estate, which, like many in England, is a tourist attraction. (In 1979 I visited one such house, Longleat House in Wiltshire, near Bath, which has a labyrinth or hedge maze like that of the fictional Egglescomb Park). Father Tom — he’d rather people not call him “Father Christmas” — discovers Lord Morborne’s lifeless body near the labyrinth. Rumors of bigamy, art forgeries, and upstairs/downstairs intrigue fly. So do whispers of unvicarly behavior between Tom and Oliver’s beautiful half-sister, Lady Lucinda. On hand to investigate are plainclothes C.I.D. officers Bliss and Blessing, from Totnes, who also appeared in the two previous novels.
Particularly delightful, to me at least, was the friendship between Tom’s 10-year-old daughter, Miranda, and Maximilian Strickland, the son of Hector and Georgina, the countess of Fairhaven. Max channels his inner Sherlock Holmes, who investigated the mysterious deaths on Dartmoor in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, and Miranda has her own French haunted house books to entertain her.
The relationships in this novel are such that a cast of characters is needed — and one is provided by the author, along with an Allan-fforde-Beckett family tree.
Benison, the pen name of Canadian writer Doug Whiteway, ties up loose ends from the previous Father Tom Christmas novels, and provides background information about the still unsolved murder of Tom’s wife when they lived in Bristol. We’re also treated to a one-woman Greek chorus in the form of letters to her mum from Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper.
Readers of “Ten Lords A-Leaping” and the two previous novels can look forward with delight to more novels that carry on the theme of the traditional song.
About the Author
C.C. Benison is the pen name of Doug Whiteway, a native of Winnipeg, Canada, and was educated at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines, as a book editor, and as a contributor to nonfiction books. He started writing mystery fiction in the 1990s with “Death At Buckingham Palace”, which was published by Bantam Books in 1996. Since then, with gaps in between to work on other projects, he has published three Tom Christmas novels.
Publisher’s website: www.bantamdell.com.