Rhys Bowen's latest could turn you into a superfan of the mystery novel. The Twelve Clues of Christmas, the sixth and latest installment in Bowen's Her Royal Spyness series, is a frightfully proper British mystery set in the 1930s, a golden age that British-born Bowen describes as the calm between two wars and that authors Robert Graves and Alan Hodge named The Long Week-End. The era spawned the larger-than-life characters who made their way into Bowen's imagination and eventually into the life of her heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch.
Georgie, as she's called, is currently 35th in line to the throne, but surviving mostly on the strings-attached kindness of her evil in-laws. Her latest adventure finds her fleeing to Tiddleton-under-Lovey, a picturesque Devonshire hamlet where Georgie is hired by a local family to perform hostess duties at a traditional English country Christmas, with two very large exceptions to the norm. One, the paying guests: Americans and upper-class Brits desperately seeking a good ol'-fashioned holiday. And, of course, the murders: one after the other, day after day. Is it just the Lovey Curse, placed on the luckless town by a long-dead witch whom the previous citizens merrily burned at the stake? Or is something more sinister afoot? Join Bowen at Laurel Book Store (4100 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland) on Saturday, December 8, to find out.
"I loved creating a real Agatha Christie-type of story with clever clues and twists and lots of fun," Bowen said. "And what a great opportunity — to relive a fantasy of the perfect English Christmas (except for the bodies, of course)." The Twelve Clues wastes no time in getting into a festive holiday mood, trotting out holly- and ivy-decorated homes, costume balls and fox hunts, Yule-log traditions and neighborly caroling. And the food — my goodness, the food! Mince pies and sausage rolls and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and Devon clotted cream and scones and a flaming Christmas pudding. Every meal is a culinary masterpiece, washed down with a staggering variety of mulled beverages. Knowing you'll be hungry whilst reading, Bowen provides recipes at the end of the book, along with guides to party games of the sort Georgie and the guests play. It's everything you'll need to recreate your very own British holiday. Again, hopefully without the bodies.
Georgie, no stranger to murder mysteries, soon finds herself helping the befuddled local inspector with the investigation. She seems to be the only one in possession of her wits, and urges the authorities to do routine things like leaving the crime scene pristine, checking for fingerprints, determining a motive, and following leads until they're exhausted. She's supported by her trusted familial helpers, including a jolly grandfather from the wrong side of the tracks (for a lady in line for the throne, anyway), and her splendid mummy dearest, a London stage coquette who happens to be in Tiddleton-under-Lovey cozying up in a cottage with Noel Coward, writing a play for the holidays. And then there's Darcy. "Darcy was created to be that slightly dangerous man of mystery," Bowen said. "We don't quite know what he does in the way of spying, but he disappears for long periods." We do know the love of Georgie's life is suave and easy on the eyes, another penniless almost-royal just trying to make a go of it. And he shows up in the midst of the action when you least expect him, knight-like, dropping in to protect Lady Georgie, who's dutifully playing hostess while trying to keep the guests from picking up on the murders. As chaos reigns in the countryside, she and Darcy keep calm and carry on, knowing there's always another adventure waiting 'round the bend. 3 p.m., free. 510-531-2073 or LaurelBookStore.com