There's nothing like a golden-age style mystery with all the components Agatha Christie has taught us to love: a country house, intriguing guests with eventful pasts and secrets they want to keep, a convoluted plot, and a less-than-first-rate detective (in fact we have two of them, DI Blessing and DS Bliss.) Extras include a labyrinth and topiary garden, hidden passageways, and a secret staircase. Also a Church of England vicar, a precocious child (or two), and a housekeeper who writes daily letters to her mum. There's a list of characters and a family tree. There's even a butler.
Titles to the contrary notwithstanding, C C Benison's 12 days of Christmas mysteries are not "Christmas books." This one, in fact, takes place in mid-summer. The titles are tied to the name of the series' amateur detective malgre lui, Father Tom Christmas of St Nicholas Church in Thornford Regis. He prefers, needless to say, to be called Mr Christmas or just Tom.
Ten Lords A-Leaping concerns a fairly routine church activity: raising money for roof repairs. There's a committee, a money goal, a plywood sign with a thermometer to record progress (or lack of it), and plans for the usual bake sales, raffles, and other nickel-and-dime fund-raising events. Until somebody suggests St Nicholas should do something different, something that will raise a lot of money in one go. Members of the Parochial Church Council, Tom, and various prominent church members will takes pledges from parishioners and townspeople. In return they will agree to parachute from an airplane. Topping off this event will be The Lords A-Leaping, a group of titled men who do aeronautical gymnastics.
The story begins with a bang. Or rather with a series of pops, as the parachutes of these first-time jumpers open one by one. But when the lords do their jump (ten of the members are present at St Nicholas' fund raising fair) two of them get into a brawl, 10,000 ft up. When a parachute fails to open the closed circuit TV broadcast becomes a horror show. Will the back up parachute deploy?
I'll leave you to read the book to find out the answer to that and to explain the malfunction in equipment (it turned out not to be what I thought.) Tom has his own problem with his jump. The two-way radio that was to bring him a friendly voice to talk him through his landing malfunctions and he sprains his ankle. He and his daughter, Miranda, are invited to stay at Eggescombe until he can drive (it was his right ankle he injured) at the invitation of the Dowager Countess of Fairhaven who lives there and manages the estate.
Most of the other guests are family, members of the fforde-Beckett family. These people are at swords drawn because of supposed mismanagement of the family trust, the suspected selling of the family impressionist paintings (and their replacement with copies), the take-over of the family house (all the locks are changed), and behind it all the irking suspicion of some that a bigamous marriage makes certain family members, well, not entirely legitimate.
One of the characters is Jane, Vicountess Kirkbride, who is a friend of Tom and Miranda. And we, the readers, know her as well, having met her when she was single (nee Bee) and working as a chambermaid in the Benison mystery series Her Majesty Investigates. This frees her from being a suspect and she is helpful to Tom as he delves into the reasons for the primary murder. Which takes place in the middle of the estate's labyrinth (not to be confused with a maze) where a thoroughly unlikeable character is garroted early one morning. Clues include an old school tie, an ephemeral path through the dewy grass, and the sound of whistling.
But this is not the only murder that needs explaining and Tom goes to work using family history, the sighting of a ghost, and even a little magic to solve the crimes.
This is the third of the Father Christmas mysteries and it does help - although it's not necessary - to have read the first two. It doesn't hurt if you've read the Jane Bee mysteries, which take place in the late 90s and are also very clever and amusing.