Back from their adventures in Jerusalem (A Christmas Message, 2016), Lord Victor Narraway and his wife, Lady Vespasia, trudge dutifully to an obligatory holiday party in an English country house whose promised tedium is shattered by a violent attack.
On the face of it, the four couples Max Cavendish and his wife, Lady Amelia, have invited for Christmas have nothing in common. Narraway, of course, is former head of Special Branch, an intelligence service with which Vespasia has also been repeatedly involved. Ex–military man Rafe Allenby is an explorer Vespasia’s encountered on several foreign excursions that his wife, Rosalind, decided to skip. Dorian Brent and his wife, Georgiana, are moneyed do-nothings. Art restorer James Watson-Watt and his wife, Iris, are so much younger than the others that they seem to have wandered over from a different party. When Iris is attacked and left for dead sometime past midnight at the orangery of Cavendish Hall, a pile Lady Amelia inherited from her branch of the family, the general reactions are bewilderment and shock. But not Narraway’s. He’s come to the gathering specifically to collect some top-secret information about German submarines from Iris, who’s working for Special Branch. Already haunted by his failure to protect another such courier from getting murdered at a house party in Normandy over 20 years ago, he can’t help feeling that history is repeating itself, casting him once more as its weakest link. As James hovers over his unconscious wife’s bedside and the assembled worthies soldier on without either notifying the police or disbanding (“For such an unfortunate event, one does not abandon one’s friends,” observes Vespasia), only one thing is certain: The mystery will be solved and the gathering uplifted just in time for Christmas.
A hyperextended short story bulked up with flashbacks, petty social slights, and holiday cheer.