Delacorte Press, 512 pages, $25
The lords leap from a plane, as it turns out, in C. C. Benison’s third book in the Tom Christmas series. Ten Lords A-Leaping is crowded with ladies as well. Most of the lords and ladies, far from being gentle mannered folk, comport themselves badly or have had enervating tragedies. The setting and murders are in the fashion of an English manor mystery, the suspects limited to the residents, guests, and staff of Eggescombe Manor.
How did Tom Christmas get himself into the middle of this lordly muddle? Tom is the vicar of St. Nicholas in Thornford Regis. He and his 10-year-old daughter are on vacation and on their way to visit relatives, but first they stop off at Eggescombe for a fundraiser. A group of skydiving lords do formation parachuting a few times a year as fundraisers for charities. Tom’s church is the current recipient of their generosity. The catch is that Tom and some of his fellow villagers must also jump, albeit from a lower elevation, with no need to do fancy formations.
Parachuting is thrilling even when nothing goes wrong, but in this case there’s more to keep the audience gasping. In a silly accident, Tom’s microphone doesn’t work and he can’t hear the instructor’s advice about braking during his fall. He comes down too fast and, voilà, sprains his ankle. While Tom is recuperating on a cot, he witnesses the lords’ portion of the event. As they pour out of the plane, it appears two of them are fighting in mid-air. Then the parachute of one fails to open. Fortunately, the secondary chute opens and there are no deaths that day. The deaths come later.
With his bum ankle, Tom and his daughter are the unwilling guests of Lord and Lady Fairhaven for at least a day or two. The other guests, both invited and unvited, are of the lordly vein. This is where the spider’s web of isn’t-it-a-small-world tangles hopelessly.
Among the guests are Jane and Jaime Allan (Lord and Lady Kirkbride), who are already known to Tom. Jaime is the brother of Tom’s ex-verger, Sebastian (whose real name is John), from Twelve Drummers Drumming. Sebastian/John disappeared suddenly a year and a half ago from Thornford Regis. He had been on the run from a family tragedy, of which more is learned in this book.
Lady Fairhaven’s wayward brother, Oliver, their wayward half-sister, Lucy, and HER half-brother, Dominic, are also visiting. The Dowager Countess Fairhaven (Marve to her friends) and her lodger, Roberto, a sculptor, round out the residents. Mick and Ellen Gaunt are the live-in staff. Coincidentally, the Gaunts' houseguest is Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper, also on vacation. Madrun is put to use, however, when the helper from the village, Anna Phillips, fails to show up.
There are all sorts of dark connections among these people, and C. C. Benison must have had a big wall chart to keep everyone straight. Whether you think all of these characters prove to be necessary or not, you certainly will get your money's worth at 512 pages of interlocking storylines.
Benison’s books are an odd mixture of standard cozy mystery fare (definitely as homage to the genre) overlaid with contemporary tones. Madrun Prowse’s chatty letters to her mother are cute and clean. Some of the goings-on in contrast would be shocking in their portrayal to a cozy reader. Tonally, the book is not consistent. However, Benison's writing is a well done synthesis of polysyllabic words and a thimbleful of four-letter ones. His writing has pizazz and humor, which immediately elevates him in my eyes. For instance, this is Tom lying on his cot after injuring his ankle:
In the second before his frangible body embraced the planet’s inflexible surface, he wondered with a strange detachment which bones might crack, which ligaments might tear.
And this is Tom waiting for the police after the first murder:
Apparently being a peer of the realm buttered no parsnips with the local constabulary, which, on the other hand, was perhaps a good thing: We’re all as one in the great democracy of poor service.
The police turn out to be Blessing and Bliss of the Totnes CID, characters Tom has already met.They really have no purpose or flavor, other than to be the token police. Tom and Jane (a former investigator for the Royal Household, no less) do all the sleuthing.
There are red herrings, magic tricks, mandatory drawing room scenes, tunnels, and secretive tip-toeing at dawn (actually, far too many people gadding about before or at dawn), much to appeal to the cozy reader, as long as he or she doesn’t mind a dash of the rougher aspects of human nature thrown in.