The Christmas Murder Game (2021) by Alexandra Benedict

Twenty-one years ago – twenty-one Christmasses ago – Lily Armitage found her mother dead, her wrists cut open, in the maze in the grounds of Endgame House, the grand house that has been in her family for years. Now she has returned for the first time to play a game, like the Christmas games her aunt held many years ago. This time, though, there are much higher stakes – the deeds to the house itself and, the one thing that Lily cares about, the truth about her mother’s death. But after the plans for the game were put in place… Lily’s aunt is also found dead. But the game goes ahead…

Twelve days of Christmas, twelve clues and twelve hidden keys. As tensions run high between Lily and her estranged cousins, it becomes clear that some of them have some very ruthless plans for the house should they achieve it. And at least one of them is willing to kill for it. As the snow begins to fall and the house is cut off, it becomes clear that Lily is trapped with a killer. The only way out is to win the game – and even then, it’s no guarantee of survival…

Yes, it’s time for the annual attempt to find a decent Christmas mystery novel. Last year wasn’t much of a success, but I had high hopes for this one. I’d come across the author, under the vague pseudonym of AK Benedict, as the author of some rather good Doctor Who audios for Big Finish, most recently The Lost Resort, so I was intrigued what sort of murder mystery she would produce. As it happens, it’s a rather interesting one.

The central theme is games, and there are plenty for the reader to take part in. The text for each day of Christmas, for example, contains an anagram of the line from the song for that day – “A Partridge In A Pear Tree” for example. I’m not convinced how well that works – I didn’t bother with it after a little bit because looking for it took me out of the narrative and it’s a very engrossing one. The easier game to play for the reader is the hidden titles (not as anagrams) of classic Christmas crime novels, although points off for including the retitled Murder In The Snow by Gladys Mitchell – it’s Groaning Spinney – and for not including that rediscovered Christmas classic, The Murders Near Mapleton by Brian Flynn, so good it’s even been translated recently into German.

The closest book I would say it resembles stylistically is The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder by Victoria Dowd, with its troubled female narrator coping with the events of the present while recalling the events of the past. It’s a strong narrative, and while the situation does seem a tad artificial, the author does a very good job of rationalising that artificiality. The tension, as people start dying and disappearing, kept me gripped throughout, and while I feel that the in-plot puzzles weren’t really play-along puzzles, as they are personal to the family, but the puzzle solving is a highlight of the book. The idea that Lily is the most likely to solve the puzzles, but the others are willing to use her (or just cheat) to win works well, and the various cousins are a distinctive group.

So, overall, an entertaining read, but I should say, the identity of the villain of the piece is… well, disappointing I suppose is the right word. It is a surprise, but only in the “is that it?” sense. After the complexities riddled throughout the rest of the tale, I was expecting more of the central mystery.

Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining read with a lot to like, and I’d definitely try another book from the author. Oh, and it’s pretty Christmassy too…

The Christmas Murder Game was released by Zaffre on 30th September 2021. Many thanks to NetGalley for the e-copy.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, and I was excited to see that you have reviewed it as I’ve put a reservation on the title in my local library. However, the book is taking ages to arrive…

    It seems to me from your review that this might not be for readers who’re going to pick it up primarily for the central mystery as a clued puzzle? I’m tempted to cancel the reservation that’s taking ages anyway…

    Like

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