Well, still “tis the season”, so to speak, so I hope you aren’t all quite sick of the holiday yet, as I felt like revisiting an old personal favorite, and it seemed particularly appropriate to discuss one that started with a Christmas entry. With that in mind, I decided to revisit Charlotte MacLeod‘s Peter Shandy Mystery Series, specifically the first book, Rest You Merry.
Peter Shandy, tenured professor of horticulture at Balaclava Agricultural College doesn’t have quite the same idea of holiday cheer as his neighbors, as the college regularly holds a large public tourist attraction in an attempt to raise money for the college’s regular operation, clashing with Shandy’s love of a quiet holiday with a few relatives or close friends. So when he’s once again asked to contribute to the festive atmosphere, he snaps, hiring a company to install a grand, gaudy display intended to annoy rather than entertain… then immediately leaving town for a holiday cruise. But when the ship breaks down unexpectedly, he returns early to find a local librarian (and busybody) dead in his living room, apparently of an accident after breaking in to dismantle parts of Shandy’s display. Naturally, the police take the accident at face value, but Shandy (a somewhat obsessive individual) thinks there are a few details that don’t add up, and decides to look into it on his own.
The setting of a small academic community is an interesting parallel to the traditional English village more common in Cozies, and shares a number of traits in common that make both excellent sites for a murder mystery. Both are small, insular communities, where everyone knows everyone else, and all too often know one another’s dark secrets. Likewise, big, vibrant characters seem natural encounters in both settings, and this series certainly has plenty of those to enjoy. Shandy himself proves to be a clever, detail-oriented investigator who reminds me in many ways of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – always a good thing! Indeed, many details of the series remind me of the “classic” Cozies of old, though this is much later than most of the “golden age” Cozies, with this entry written in the late 1970s.
One particular interesting thing that came to mind was how a book can change as it ages. I originally read this book years ago (probably decades…), and many of the things that I likely took for granted as normal then now strike me as being more than a bit odd. The most obvious is that whenever Shandy goes into someone’s house, the host seems interested in plying him with hard alcohol, often quite early in the day. It seems like he can’t get through a visit to any of his neighbors without one of them thrusting a glass full of bourbon into his hands. Admittedly, it might be that it’s the holidays, so a bit more “festivity” is socially acceptable, but it still seems a bit out of place now!
It’s also worth noting how some things have changed, which might be good or bad depending on your perspective. Peter Shandy is investigating a crime. He doesn’t sit down to crochet, or bake a cake, or operate his small business for a day or two between interviewing potential suspects and witnesses. This might put some people off, considering the modern Cozy’s love of hobby activities (which I do also love!), but there’s also something to be said for a mystery novel that is first and foremost about the mystery.
All told, I remember this as being a great start to a classic series by an author I’ve pretty much always enjoyed, and this most recent re-read did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a Cozy with great setting and characters, and the mystery being the most important part of the book, Rest You Merry is a great book to pick up.