Read an Excerpt
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
Agatha Raisin, private detective, and her friend Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife, sat in the shabby vicarage drawing room in the Cotswold village of Carsely one Saturday in late November, drinking coffee and looking out at a vista of sleety rain driving across the tombstones of the churchyard at the end of the garden.
"Are you going away for Christmas, Mrs. Raisin?" asked Mrs. Bloxby. Both women still addressed each other by their surnames, a fashion started in the now defunct Ladies Society but which they kept up.
"I might have a Christmas party here," said Agatha.
"But you tried that before!" exclaimed Mrs. Bloxby.
"This time it will be all right," said Agatha mulishly. Mrs. Bloxby surveyed her with affectionate exasperation. Good detective though she was and the very picture of modern woman from her glossy brown hair to her patent leather high boots, Mrs. Bloxby reflected, not for the first time, that there was a part of Agatha that had never grown up.
"People are apt to chase after a romantic image of Christmas which does not exist," said Mrs. Bloxby cautiously. She brushed a wisp of hair from her face and looked anxiously at her friend. "Most of the population only experience a spiritual feeling of awe when they are small children and look on Santa Claus for the first time. That's what they remember and are ever after chasing that magic."
"I never met Santa Claus," said Agatha, thinking of her own deprived childhood in a Birmingham slum.
"I think," pursued Mrs. Bloxby, "that the true Christmas feeling is thinking and caring about other people — like the elderly and infirm, say."
Agatha brightened. "Great idea."
"What?" asked Mrs. Bloxby nervously.
"There are a lot of crumblies in this village. I mean sometimes the Cotswolds feel like God's waiting room. Come in, number five, says a voice from the heavens. Your number's up. I'll give them a slap-up Christmas dinner."
"They will probably be having Christmas with their families. But come to think of it, I do know six elderly people who were left alone last Christmas."
"That's a nice little number," said Agatha. "I'm always working, so I'm a bit out of touch with the villagers. Who are they?"
"There's Mrs. Matilda Glossop, Mr. Harry Dunster, Mr. Jake Turnbull, Miss Freda Pinch, Mr. Simon Trent and ..."
She hesitated. "And who?" prompted Agatha.
"There's Len Leech, but he can be difficult."
"He fancies himself as a ladies' man."
"How old is he?"
"I believe he's in his eighties."
Agatha laughed. "He's at the Look, don't touch age. I can handle that."
Mrs. Bloxby turned pink. "He pinched my bottom. And in the church!"
"The old devil. Maybe he got you mixed up with Pippa Middleton. What did you do?"
"I preferred to ignore it."
"I'd have hit him with my handbag. Don't worry. I'll cope. Have you their addresses?"
Mrs. Bloxby rose and walked over to an old bureau. Opened a drawer and pulled out a large ledger. "I keep all the names and addresses of the parishioners in here."
Agatha took out a notebook. "Fire away. I'll give this lot of crumblies the best Christmas they have ever had."
Matilda Glossop was a fine-looking woman in her late seventies. She had a pleasant face, thick white hair and brown eyes. She stared down at the pretty invitation card Agatha had sent her and felt tears well up in her eyes. Matilda had met Agatha at a fundraiser and had found her to be a rather terrifying woman. On the other hand, her son and daughter had written — not phoned — to say they were spending Christmas in the Bahamas. The year before, it had been the Maldives. They always holidayed together with their spouses and grandchildren. She sat down to pen an acceptance.
Harry Dunster was ninety years old and proud of it. "Go on! Guess my age," he was fond of demanding. He was a small man with a dowager's hump and he walked painfully with the aid of a stick. His tragedy was that he had outlived his son, Charles, who had been killed in a motor accident when he was only twenty-one. Shortly after that, Harry's wife had died of cancer. He was often quite hungry, his pension going on cigarettes and petrol for his ancient Ford. He was delighted with Agatha's invitation, imagining a slap-up meal of turkey and all the trimmings.
Jake Turnbull was eighty-five, a stocky barrel-shaped farmer. He had a nasty temper, no wife and no friends. He usually spent Christmas getting thoroughly drunk. He was also a bit of a miser and delighted in the thought of free food and booze.
Freda Pinch was a spinster, or, as the politically correct would say, a single woman. Her surname was appropriate, because she had a pinched little face, thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a flat-chested figure. Although she was small in stature, she had very large feet and hands, making her look like the illustration of a witch in a children's book. She was eighty-two years old. She did not like Agatha. Agatha was known to have men staying overnight, Disgraceful! But then, there was the thought of another bleak Christmas on her own. She decided to accept.
Simon Trent was eighty years old but looked as if he were in his sixties. His brown hair had only a few threads of grey in it, and he had a pleasant craggy face. He was tall, age having not shrunk his skeleton very much. He was a retired engineer. He was considered a useful man in the village because he did car repairs, often not charging anything at all. His wife had fallen in love with a plumber a long time ago and had run off and left him. After the divorce, Simon had not felt like getting married again. He knew of Agatha's prowess as a detective and admired her. He decided to go to her Christmas dinner.
Len Leech read his invitation with a slow smile. That Raisin woman was considered a bit of a fast mover. She must have seen him around the village and set her sights on him. When he looked in the mirror, Len saw a handsome man. Others saw an eighty-five-year-old with dyed black hair, small black eyes set too close together and a wide fleshy mouth. He had a beer paunch and thick fingers like chipolata sausages. Agatha would have been horrified if she could have seen the pornographic film that was already running inside Len's head. Len was pleased to think that because Agatha in her early fifties was past childbearing age, he would not have to buy condoms. Never liked the things anyway. Like making love in your socks. Three wives had divorced him before getting round to producing children. His ego swelling like a bullfrog, he wrote a fulsome acceptance, beginning, Dear lady.
Roy Silver, Agatha's friend and former employee from the days when she ran a London PR agency, arrived the following weekend. His appearance changed according to which client or clients he was representing, and his latest client was a pop band called Sod Off. They were trying to reinvent punk. His fine hair was dyed pink and green and gelled up into a crest. His jeans were ripped at the knee. And, to Agatha's horror, he had two nose rings.
"What have you done to yourself?" cried Agatha. "You look like retro shit. And those nose piercings! What are you going to do when that ridiculous fashion dies? You'll need to pay for plastic surgery to get the holes filled in."
Roy shrugged. "It's this village life, babes. You've gone all old- fashioned." His sleeveless denim jacket revealed thin arms covered down to the wrists in swirling blue and red tattoos. "Don't glare," he said. "They peel off."
"What will the villagers think?" mourned Agatha. "Don't go outside this cottage without a bag over your head."
"It's not as bad as that."
"Trust me. It is. Does that canary-coloured gel wash off?"
"Well, that's a start. Go upstairs and have a shower and find some more conservative clothes."
Roy trailed sulkily upstairs, to emerge later with clean hair and wearing a striped shirt and corduroy trousers. "Now you look more like a human being and less like a throwback to the seventies," said Agatha. She told him about her Christmas party.
"Am I invited?" asked Roy.
"I suppose so," said Agatha reluctantly. "Haven't you anywhere else to go?"
"No, and I'm your friend, right? I bet you've asked James and Charles."
James Lacey, Agatha's next-door neighbor, was her ex-husband, and Sir Charles Fraith a friend who came and went in her life.
"I don't know where James is," said Agatha. "He travels a lot. Charles has disappeared out of my life again and this is a party for the elderly. I'm concentrating on giving them a good Christmas."
"Are you going to give them all presents?"
"I suppose so. Something small."
"What about decorations?" asked Roy.
"I've got loads left over from the last two Christmas parties."
"You'll need a real tree."
"Never again," said Agatha. "The cats will sabotage it. I'm getting a nice fake one. Besides, it's rather miserable after Christmas to have a dying tree looking at you accusingly."
"You'll get caterers to do the cooking."
"I would like to do something myself," said Agatha. "I know. I'll make the Christmas pudding. It can't be that hard if one treats it like a scientific experiment."
"We'll make it this weekend and let it mature," said Roy.
"I've got a Sarah Smith cookbook," said Agatha. "Her recipes are supposed to be easy."
She took out the cookery book and found a recipe for Christmas pudding. "It looks awfuly complicated," said Roy, reading over her shoulder.
"Oh, we'll go out and buy all the stuff and then take it bit by bit," said Agatha.
Late that afternoon, they returned carrying cartons of shopping. "Let's leave it until tomorrow," pleaded Roy.
"No, I want to get started now," said Agatha. "Unpack all the stuff and put it on the kitchen table and then you read out Sarah's instructions."
"Okay. But I'm going to have a stiff drink first," said Roy. "Have one yourself. You might need it."
"Get yourself a drink and start reading." Agatha wrapped herself in an apron she had never used before. Most of her cooking was done by putting readymade meals in the micro wave.
When Roy was finally seated at the table with a large vodka and tonic, he began to read out Sarah's instructions. "'Take your largest, roomiest mixing bowl and start putting in the suet, sifted flour and breadcrumbs, spices and sugar.' I don't think those are the right breadcrumbs, Aggie. They're those orange ones people put on fish. And the almonds are supposed to be skinned and chopped, not put in whole. And you didn't peel the apple."
"Nobody'll notice," said Agatha. "Read on."
What a lot of ingredients, thought Agatha. Part of the advice was to tick everything off, but Agatha couldn't be bothered. For example, she was supposed to put the barley wine, rum and stout into a smaller basin and beat it up with the eggs, but she cut corners by just pouring it all into the mix in the big bowl.
Roy took a turn stirring. "It's supposed to be sloppy," he complained.
"Easily solved," said Agatha, tipping a generous amount of rum into the bowl and then taking a swig out of the bottle to fortify herself.
"Now what?" she asked.
"You're supposed to cover it with a clean tea towel and leave to soak overnight."
"And what do we have to do tomorrow?"
"Steam it for eight hours. I didn't see you sift the flour," said Roy anxiously. "You just dumped it in."
"So I did," said Agatha, stifling a yawn. "We'll steam the beastly thing in the morning."
But the next day, after they had put the pudding on to steam, it seemed too boring to wait indoors and so they went to the pub for lunch and forgot about it, only remembering as they were strolling back down the road. Both broke into a run. The windows of the cottage were covered in steam. Agatha ran through billowing clouds of steam in time to put more water into the pot which was about to boil dry.
They opened the doors and windows to let the steam out and then Agatha had to field phone calls from various villagers asking if her house was on fire.
"It's been on four hours." Agatha peered at the pudding anxiously. "That should be enough. What do I do with it now?"
"You're supposed to put it in a cool place like an unheated bedroom."
"Everything's heated in this house," said Agatha. "I'll put it down in the shed."
"Maybe you should buy one from a supermarket just in case," suggested Roy.
"What! After all my work!"
"And mine," pointed out Roy. "Nonetheless ..."
"Nonetheless nothing," said Agatha. "Sarah is supposed to be infallible."
"Only if you follow the recipe," muttered Roy.
* * *
Agatha's friend, Sir Charles Fraith, who had the keys to her cottage, strolled in one evening shortly before Christmas, to find Agatha trying to fend off her cats, Hodge and Boswell, as she decorated a large fake- green Christmas tree.
"Thought you'd be off soon to somewhere sunny," said Charles. "Why all the decorations?"
Agatha told him.
"For a hard-nosed detective, occasionally you're a bit of a dreamer, Agatha. Do you expect them all to tug their forelocks and say, 'Thank you, Lady Bountiful'?"
"Stop bitching and help me with this tinsel."
"I hope you've got caterers," said Charles.
"I have. But not for the pudding. I made that myself."
"Where is it?"
"Down in the garden shed."
"It's been unusually mild recently, Agatha. Are you sure the flies won't have got to it?"
"Maybe I'd better have a look at it." Charles strolled towards the kitchen door with the cats at his heels.
"Look! But don't touch." Agatha called after him.
Charles opened the shed door and then backed away. He felt like someone in a CSI television programme discovering a rotting corpse. The air was full of the hum of flies. The pudding was sitting on a potting bench with black flies swirling around it. He gritted his teeth, stepped into the shed, and carried the pudding back up the garden and into the kitchen.
"You'd better come and see this," he called. "The bowl's covered in flies."
Agatha rushed in, took one horrified look at the bowl, seized a can of fly killer and sprayed the pudding.
"There. That's all right," she said as dying flies rolled around the kitchen table.
"Don't you think it might now taste awful?" asked Charles.
"No. It's well sealed. Clean up those flies, Charles. I know, I'll put it in the fridge. Why didn't Sarah think of that?"
"Obviously because that's one thing you shouldn't do."
"Rats! She said a cool place and so the fridge is a cool place. Don't nag. Just shovel up the flies. Do you want to come to this dinner?"
"When is it?"
"Can't. Got to carve the bird at home. Do video it. I could do with a laugh."
Roy arrived on Christmas Eve, just as Agatha was preparing to turn the pudding onto a plate.
"There!" she said triumphantly. "Oh, no, I think it's going to fall apart. What will I do?"
"We could make a toffee glaze and pour it over. All we need is a lot of sugar and water. I can do that."
Agatha waited nervously until Roy had made the toffee covering. He poured it over the pudding. "Now, if we put it gently back in the fridge, it'll harden. Stick some holly on the top and it'll look great. But God knows what it will taste like. I checked the ingredients you had left out."
"I didn't leave any out," howled Agatha.
* * *
Matilda Glossop fretted over what to wear. It seemed a long time since she had been invited to any social event. She finally chose a black wool dress and tied a scarlet silk scarf at the neck to brighten it up. She had knitted a soft wool scarf for Agatha.
Harry Dunster decided on comfort, putting on his usual ratty old cardigan and checked shirt over a pair of black trousers, shiny with age. For a present he chose a pretty Crown Derby teacup. It was a bit chipped and had lost its saucer a long time ago.
Jack Turnbull thought that Agatha was rich enough not to need any present from him. Still, it was Christmas. He relucantly wrapped up a bottle of homemade sloe gin in a piece of newspaper. He put on the ratcatchers outfit he used for hunting: tweed hacking jacket and cords. Hunting was his one luxury.
Simon Trent put on his evening suit, glad that it still fitted. He wrapped up a pretty mother-of-pearl powder compact he had found in an antique shop and also wrapped up a bottle of champagne in Christmas paper.
Excerpted from Christmas Crumble by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2012 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.