Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about what a lot of people call the country house mystery. The house doesn’t always have to actually be in the countryside; but such a story usually involves a disparate group of people who have gathered, a sense of isolation, and, of course, a murder. Such a story is Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring, the first of her Gregor Demarkian novels, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.
The real action in the novel begins when Philadelphia-based former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian gets a note from the local parish priest, Father Tibor, asking him to pay the priest a visit. Father Tibor has had a very unusual request, and he’s agreed to pass it along to Demarkian. A very wealthy man named Robert Hannaford wants Demarkian to have dinner with his family on Christmas Eve. In return, he’s willing to give US$100,000 to the church. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Hannaford would know Demarkian’s name, as he had quite a reputation before he left the Bureau. On the other, it’s an extremely odd request. Still, Demarkian agrees to go. The dinner is to be held at the family home, Engine House, in Bryn Mawr, a very wealthy suburb of Philadelphia.
When Demarkian arrives, he sees that it’s too late to find out what his host really wanted: Hannaford has been murdered. The police have already arrived, and Detective John Jackman is in charge of the investigation. He and Demarkian know each other; and, at first, he thinks that the FBI is going to take over the case, much to his chagrin. But, once Jackman’s reassured that Demarkian’s no longer with the Bureau, and has no desire for a ‘patch war,’ he decides to tap Demarkian’s expertise, and hire him as a consultant.
Because of the security at the family home, it’s highly unlikely that a stranger would have killed Hannaford. And because of a snowstorm that’s made the roads steadily more difficult to navigate, it would be hard in any case for someone to commit murder and make a quick getaway. That leaves the members of the Hannaford family, all of whom are staying in the house.
And it’s not long before Demarkian finds plenty of motive among Hannaford’s seven children. The victim disliked all of his children, and made no secret of the fact. And they disliked him just as much. In fact, the only reason most of them are spending Christmas at Engine House is that Christmas is very important to their mother, Cordelia. She’s insisted that everyone should spend the holiday in the old-fashioned way. Within a short time, Demarkian and Jackman establish that any one of the Hannaford children could be the killer. The only one who couldn’t have murdered Hannaford is Cordelia, who’s got advanced multiple sclerosis, and can’t move easily.
Then, there’s another murder. And another. Now, it looks as though someone might be trying to kill off all of the Hannafords. If so, who is it? If there are specific victims in mind, what links them? In the end, Demarkian and Jackman work out who the killer is, and what the motive is.
This is a traditional-style mystery, with a closed group of suspects, several possible motives, and secrets several of the characters are keeping. And the snow and cold give the story a ‘closed in country house murder’ atmosphere. The solution is consistent with a traditional mystery, too. I can say without spoiling the novel that it’s not a serial killer who wants to target rich people.
And rich they are. The Hannaford family is what’s known in Philadelphia as ‘old Main Line.’ People like them have been in the exclusive ‘Main Line’ suburbs of Philadelphia for hundreds of years. They have debutante balls, they go to expensive Ivy League universities, and belong to the most selective clubs in the area. As the story goes on, we get to see what that lifestyle is like. We also get to see how that sort of wealth and social standing has impacted the Hannaford children.
The story is told from a variety of points of view. So, we also get to see what those (now-grown) children and their parents are like. All of them are deeply flawed; some of them are not at all sympathetic characters. And they all have reason to dislike each other. There’s none of the family bonding that many people feel with their siblings and parents. And Hannaford himself is a tyrannical old-style patriarch. Yet, because we see their different perspectives, we also see what motivates them, and we see that, like most people, they are complex.
We also learn about Gregor Demarkian’s character. He’s a widower who still misses his wife, Elizabeth, very much. He doesn’t wallow in it, but he is marked by her death. He is of Armenian ethnic background, and lives in an Armenian area of Philadelphia. Everyone there knows everyone, and Demarkian is woven into that social fabric. In fact, there’s a funny scene during which he has dinner with Bennis Hannaford, one of the Hannaford children. They eat in a local restaurant, and word soon gets around about Demarkian’s ‘date.’
There are other ways, too, in which Haddam weaves some wry wit into the story. In one scene, for instance, one of the Hannaford sons, Teddy, is opening a Christmas gift:
‘The second box had gloves in it. Black leather gloves. Teddy already had six pairs…Teddy threw the gloves on the floor. They were from [his sister] Emma. Emma had given him the other six pairs.’
It’s not really a light novel. There’s more violence and more profanity than you usually see in light ‘frothy’ stories. But there are some darkly witty moments.
Not a Creature Was Stirring is the story of a wealthy, Main Line Philadelphia family, and the relationships among its members. It has a touch of psychology, and gives the reader a look at life behind the walled estates of the area. And it introduces a sleuth who finds that detection may be the spark he needs to start his life again. But what’s your view? Have you read Not a Creature Was Stirring? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 3 July/Tuesday, 4 July – Inspector Imanishi Investigates – Seichō Matsumoto
Monday 10 July/Tuesday, 11 July – A Morbid Taste For Bones – Ellis Peters
Monday 17 July/Tuesday, 18 July – Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham