Although Father Tom Christmas serves his little church in enchanting Thornford Regis with a glad and faithful heart, he never expects to find himself skydiving to raise money for it. Nor, safely back on the ground, to see two of the other divers leap from the plane, then tangle in a midair punch-up and begin falling to the earth.
To say that there is tension between the men in question—Oliver, the 7th Marquess of Morborne, and his brother-in-law Hector, the 10th Earl of Fairhaven—would be an understatement. But the trouble among this ancient landed family really began a generation ago, when a marquess divorced his first spouse to marry his brother’s wife, fathering in his two marriages a viper’s nest of arrogant young aristocrats. Now they have all turned up for the show to witness this shocking event in the sky.
Thankfully the men land safely, but death will not be slighted. Much to Father Tom’s dismay, he later discovers Lord Morborne lying deceased on castle grounds. Rumors of bigamy, art forgeries, and upstairs/downstairs intrigue fly. So do whispers of unvicarly behavior between Tom and Oliver’s beautiful half-sister, Lady Lucinda. In fact, the vicar may be headed for a very hard landing of his own.
C. C. Benison gives a virtuoso performance in this gripping new puzzle, a compelling and wise holiday mystery with the irresistible allure of hot tea and warm scones on a cold winter’s day.
Praise for C. C. Benison’s Father Christmas mysteries
Ten Lords A-Leaping
“A strong mystery reminiscent of P. D. James, with many well-developed characters, local color and a sensitive, intelligent investigator.”—Kirkus Reviews
“An affable lead with a sympathetic backstory anchors Benison’s carefully crafted third Father Christmas mystery. . . . Readers will hope that Christmas will keeping detecting past the partridge-in-a-pear-tree volume.”—Publishers Weekly
“This leisurely paced, English-country-house mystery has multiple plotlines and plot twists as Tom finds a long-lost relative of a friend and solves several mysteries.”—Booklist
Eleven Pipers Piping
“Benison uses the claustrophobia of village life to great effect, making the series a psychologically astute pleasure for fans of traditional cozies.”—The Washington Post
“Smashingly clever . . . Readers will be crazy about this vicar.”—Library Journal
“A great whodunit in the best British tradition.”—The Globe and Mail
Twelve Drummers Drumming
“A crime novel that Agatha Christie might have been justly proud to claim as her own.”—Margaret Maron
“Benison does an admirable job balancing humor with suspense. . . . Father Christmas’s first case leaves you eager for his next.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Splendid . . . an intelligent and empathic protagonist and skillful prose make this a winner.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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“The things I do for the Church of England,” Tom murmured, thinking he might as well have shouted it aloud. One could barely hear a thing anyway what with the fearsome roar. He could hear his heart crashing in his chest, though. It sounded like a big bass drum, accompanied by a simmering tintinnabulation along the fibres of his nerves, and he rather wished he could exercise some control over it—but he couldn’t. The messy, squashy, beaty thing was coursing inexorably to a horrible bursting point. He would surely die before it was his turn. He would leave his daughter fatherless. It was too cruel. Miranda was already motherless.
His eyes raced around the fuselage with its great girdling ribs. The belly of Jonah’s whale would have seemed like this, if the beast were aluminium and tore through the air at alarming speed. As a calming strategy, as the queue shuffled towards the beast’s open jaws—to doom, surely—he focused his attention on the back of Mark’s head, which was squashed into a leather helmet reminiscent of a Roaring Twenties aviator farce. Mark Tucker, faithful husband, young father, brilliant accountant, budding novelist, the best church council treasurer a priest could have. What if something unthinkable happens? How will I ever bear Violet’s reproach? Those fearsome pinprick eyes of hers.
But Violet was young. She could marry again. Mark would have set her up nicely with insurance. Her rich in-laws doted on her. She was not without education. She could find work, keep herself occupied. Oh, it would be dreadful at first. Too, too dreadful. The grief, the pain. He knew these things. But time heals. It does. She would carry on. You do, don’t you. Well, don’t you?
What have I done?
This is all my doing, Tom thought. I’m the one who pressed for this. But it seemed the right thing at the time. Anything to avoid years’ worth of bring-and-buys and carboot sales and karaoke nights to raise funds for church repairs. Something that would bring the cash in a flash. It’s always such a bore lying awake at night worrying more about stones than souls. And it would be enormously satisfying to rid St. Nicholas’s churchyard of that ghastly plywood thermometer. It insulted him every time he walked up the pea shingle path to the church, with its sad little red plastic capillary and its unaccountably inelegant hand lettering. He had fought members of his church council against having such a thing set up by the north porch, and had lost. If funds raised from today’s event proved insufficient, well . . . The village had among its citizens a lovable kleptomaniac. Perhaps it had a likable arsonist.
The queue shuffled forwards. Tom stared past Mark’s shoulder towards the gaping portal. Strong light, undifferentiated and cold, seemed to pour towards him and sear his startled eyes. Might this be what our moment of death is like? One of his parishioners in Bristol had described it thus, urgently, wonderingly, in a state of euphoria as she faded in and out of consciousness on her deathbed. The light, Father, the light! she’d rasped, her fingernails digging into his palm. I can see Our Lord, oh! And, look, is that Ivor Novello?
Mark bent forwards slightly, and what greeted Tom’s eyes, try as he did to look away, was neither beckoning Jesus nor disoriented matinee idol, but tidy tiny patches of warm greens and golds knitted together like a fancy patchwork coat. How delightful! Heaven might look exactly like Devon. And look, off in the distance, the patterns of colour merged into a crease of soft grey brushed by a transcendent haze. Wasn’t that . . . ? My God, it was! The Channel! How high in the air were they?
And then there was a terrible shout and Mark vanished. Tom shuffled forwards, to the head of the queue, into the full ring of light, and said a silent prayer. Now it was his turn. Blood roared in his ears; his heart swelled in his chest.
Some little time passed—really, very little time (plunging through the ether did rather tend to play havoc with time)—when it dawned on Tom that all might not be kosher. Not frighteningly, horrifyingly not kosher. More worryingly, troublingly not kosher.
He had done everything as he ought to have done, as instructed by their skydiving teacher at the airfield. When the jumpmaster next to the door of the airplane roared at him the “go” command, the fear that had punctuated his waking thoughts for the last week, the fear that had grown through their four hours of on-ground instruction, the fear that had gripped him in the fuselage of this airplane, had hurtled to a crescendo. His heart leapt into his throat like a flapping fish and in a blinding moment of panic he’d seized the frame of the door like grim death. But the jumpmaster gently tapped his shoulder. It felt like an angel’s grace, and his fright ebbed. He vaulted into the sky, somersaulted, gaped with wonder at the dome of hard blue and wispy white, and—he astonished himself entirely—felt a mighty whoop exit his throat as the adrenaline terror coursing along his veins turned to joy and he embraced the wildness of the moment. Air rushed past his popping ears—a new roar—as he executed his opening stance—legs up high behind, back arched, back up—while he tumbled. He was upside down in the sky! And then, in a second, he was facing the horizon, gasping as the line between earth and sky seemed to rise higher and higher and higher. Yet oddly, he felt suspended, held in place only by the whipping wind that pressed against his body.
The free fall was over in a seeming instant. Novices, he and the other villagers weren’t as high in the sky as the Leaping Lords would soon be. Tom pushed down on his rip cord, felt a sudden tug along his body, and heard the distinctive whump! of rushing air suddenly trapped. It was exultation. His whole body lifted into the sky as air filled the cells of his canopy. The feverish rush of noise and wind stopped. The thrumming in his veins settled into a giddy groove as a kind of peace flowed through, above, and around him. All was silent but for the hum of the vanishing airplane, above, and the popcorn pops of other opening chutes. Thin clouds hovered over the Channel, he noted as he pulled at his steering toggles, but over this patch of Devon the sky was clear, allowing an unimpeded view of the collage of fields, ripe with golden grain this early August, of the dark green coombes riven by streams glittering in the sunlight like tinsel thread, and of the snug groupings of houses, their slate roofs turned to flashing planes of silver. Below him, too, like flowers flung from a balcony, fluttered the bright canopies of the other skydivers from the village who had risen—bless them all—to this sponsored fund-raising challenge: eager Mark, for instance, who had needed no persuading; tentative Roger Pattimore, who had strained to lose a stone to come below the maximum allowable weight; undaunted Jeanne Neels, who wouldn’t let being born with one hand stop her; octogenarian Michael Woolnough, untroubled by his advanced age—all of them members of his parochial church council, the entirety of which, but for one, signed on for the adventure, along with forty more from Thornford Regis.
Tom tugged his right strap, sending him in a gentle twirl. Puzzled, though not concerned, he wondered a little that no one—in the air or on the ground—had tried to communicate with him on his squawk box, the radio nestled above his chest strap. Jumper Number Nine, you should be preparing to land, or the like. Most likely he was doing so splendidly, no one felt obliged to correct him. Really, once you’d got past the stomach-churning bit of leaping from an airplane at thirty-five hundred feet, it was all a bit of a lark. He was starting to feel assuredly old-hand at it as he floated downwards, the earth and all its charms sharpening in delineation. He could clearly make out now the dark E-shape that was Eggescombe Hall and the pale circle of its forecourt with two roads leading from it like shoots on a sprouting bean gently winding and disappearing into a thicket of greenery. And there, to the east of the Hall, on a little hillock, was the famous Eggescombe Labyrinth, intricate and meticulous as if a sky god had pressed his signet ring into the soil.
Or was it west?
Tom felt himself vaguely disoriented as he circled around, more quickly now. Yes, the Labyrinth was east. That was Dartmoor to the north. The transition from lush pasture and woodland to bleak tableland never seemed so abrupt as it was from this bird’s-eye view. It was as if two worlds had collided with each other, knitted only by a silver seam that was surely Eggesbrooke, one of the streams rising on the moor. Westwards he twisted. Was that a stable block? And that the kitchen garden? That large irregular shape had to be the dower house. And what was that gorgeous turquoise lozenge glittering so blindingly in the middle of the lawn? He couldn’t tell, he was corkscrewing east again, now able to make out what had to be the Gatehouse and its forecourt, and there, a little farther east down a licorice strip of road, a cluster of cottage roofs and miniature gardens, and one square Norman church tower—evidence of the tiny village of Abbotswick.
North and westwards again, he noted the irregular mosaic of parkland and gardens cede to one large lawn, on which someone—one of Lord Fairhaven’s staff presumably—had chalked a fat Greek cross, white on green. The parachutes beneath him were streaming towards it like obedient geese.
The cross was his destination, too, the place of safe landing. At one arm of the cross was an elevated wind sock, its narrow end stiffened easterly by the west wind blowing off the Atlantic. This was his beacon and guide. He must loop around, steer into the ground wind, as indicated by the sock, and prepare to glide smoothly towards the target to make a soft landing. Like stepping off a step, their instructor had said in his reassuring voice. Tom glanced at the altimeter on his left wrist as Eggescombe Hall and its outbuildings fell behind him and he swooped down towards the expanse of the western lawn, feeling the earth rise to greet him with a sudden and unexpected force. The sweet tranquility of the canopied descent had somehow confounded time’s ineluctable passage. He was two hundred feet nearer the ground than he had imagined he was. It was here, at this height, that he was to prepare to land, to “flare,” as the instructor had said, to make his final approach in such a fashion as to ensure comfort and safety. It was here, too, that his squawk box was to intrude with voice commands to ease the novice’s final descent. But where is the voice?
“Hello,” he addressed the box, concern giving over to alarm. “Hello? Jumper Number Nine here awaiting instructions . . . Hello?”
The thing was mute.
It was then Tom realised something was awry. Something was worryingly, troublingly not kosher.
He wasn’t being ignored. The radio was dead.
The ground loomed up faster, no pleasant pasture now. The instructor’s directives flew, half remembered, into Tom’s brain: Take toggles at shoulders, pull down to breastbone, turn your wrists to your body and push the toggles between your legs in a smooth motion. Yes, he thought with giddy relief, he would make the target, not go hurtling into a hedgerow or drop onto the gorse-covered, rock-strewn moor. Yes, he was slowing, but now he felt little gentleness in his approach. The solid unforgiving earth seemed poised to open and swallow him. From the corners of his eyes, he could see a few who had already landed, jumpsuited, stopping in the scooping of their nylon canopies, staring up at him, helpless in the face of danger.
And now, heart again surging into his throat, eyes horrified to see individuated blades bloom in the chalky grass, he quickly lifted his legs behind him in the approved manner, then as quickly extended them, set to land first on the balls of his feet, to absorb the shock. But the ground raced to meet him with astonishing fury. As his feet grazed the armour of the soil, he felt only helpless surprise at his contorting, ungovernable body. His landing turned collapse. Something buckled and twisted. He sensed injury before his brain registered it and when it did, it came as the purest, brightest burst of pain.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It's Christmas time again! Time for the newest Tom Christmas mystery from C.C. Benison, that is! The latest entry in this wonderful cozy mystery series - Ten Lords A-Leaping - is newly released. At the end of the last book - Eleven Pipers Piping (see a theme here?) - Father Christmas, the vicar of the small English village of Thornford Regis had organized a sky diving fundraiser for the church's much needed new roof. Eggescombe Hall, the country home of the Earl of Fairhaven, has been offered up as the venue. Not every one is feeling charitable though. Two of the Leaping Lords get into a tussle thousands of feet in the sky....and one Lord's parachute fails to open. What was supposed to have been an afternoon's event is extended when one of the Earl's cousins is found murdered in the labyrinth. Father Tom, his daughter Miranda, housekeeper Madrun and many assorted 'peers of the realm' are ordered to stay put by the local constabulary until they determine 'whodunit'. Benison opens the book with one of Madrun's chatty letters to her mother. I adore these letters - Madrun's misspelled words, crossed out sentences and her view on what's going one. Subtle clues are also dropped into her missives. And some of it is just plain fun.... "We talked on a bit, PC Widger and I. Turns out his mother-in-law is a cousin once removed of Tilly Springett's late husband who used to farm near Thornford you remember. Anyway his mother-in-law is a lady golf ball diver (ret'd). She would dive into the water traps at the golf course all over the West Country and sell the balls she found! So nice to have a chat with someone about something normal!" But the real draw is the main character Tom. He's not a stuffy old parson poking about, but instead is a younger, handsome widower who comes across as very human and very real. His own wife's killer was never found. He's doing the best he can to raise his eleven year old daughter. (who is just as curious and loves a set of novels featuring a French girl detective) In Ten Lords A-Leaping, Tom makes a decision based on loneliness and desire. But will that decision have an impact on discovering who the real murderer is? I appreciate that Tom's character and persona are being developed more and more from book to book. Subtle clues about Tom's biological parents are dropped and I'm sure this thread will likely appear in a further book. His calm and gentle manner is comforting and more than a bit of good advice is usually shared. Tom has a knack for eliciting information. I must say though, he has a propensity for stumbling across dead bodies! There are many, many players in this latest mystery - I found myself quite glad that Benison provided a family tree as an appendix, as I referred to it often in the beginning. We're kept guessing as to the identity of the killer - no one seems to be able to tell the truth at Eggescombe Hall. Everyone is determined to keep their own secrets. Half truths, outright lies and omissions cloud the journey to the killer's identity. Benison cleverly inserts an unsolved mystery from the previous book into the plot of this one. Ten Lords A-Leaping had an Agatha Christie feel to it - with the estate on lock down and the killer most likely one of those within the walls Picking up the latest Father Tom mystery has become one of my Christmas reading traditions. Benison has set us up for the next in the series through Madrun's latest letter to her Mum. A Hollywood actress with ties the village will be directing the Drama Society's latest play - Nine Ladies. This reader will be waiting eagerly for next year's release - and the return to the village as a setting. Definitely a recommended series. Established fans will want to add Ten Lords A-Leaping to their collection. New readers - treat yourself and start from the beginning with Twelve Drummers Drumming.
Have enjoyed all in this series. Only once in awhile, a little too descriptive, which slows it down.
Ten Lords A-Leaping -- 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.
Way too many characters, all of whom seem to be related . Way too many subplots too . Reading these books can be a chore at times and yet strangely enjoyable . Love love love the housekeepers letters to her mother .. they are the best thing in the books.
Interesting characters very unusual concept.
Does not come close to his namesake story is unpleasant as are most the cast of characters ending hurrried and sloppy
This was not my favorite Father Tom Christmas installment. The story has in my opinion to much fighting amongst the characters and does not really advance the story. Father Tom seems to be smitten Lady Lucinda and the other characters are just bitter and always bickering with each other. The book was to long and drawn out.
I am thrilled with the new Father Christmas series by C. C. Benison. For Anglophiles and lovers of cozies with teeth, this series rocks.
I enjoy the Father Christmas series. The mystery plot is good and Father Christmas is a believable character.