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With thanks to the British library for the review copy.

On Boxing day, I put aside my huge copy of London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes that I was reading, needing a fiction break – and picked up my second BLCC novel of the month. It was the perfect read for those couple of days after Christmas. Don’t worry, I finally finished London War Notes on New Year’s Eve and hope to review it later this week.

Crossed Skis is by Carol Carnac – a pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote mysteries under the name E.C.R Lorac who will be familiar to many BLCC fans. While Lorac mysteries tend to feature her Scotland Yard detective Inspector Macdonald, the Carnac novels feature a different Scotland Yard man, Julian Rivers – who I found a very likeable character.

In this mystery two distinct storylines eventually converge – as the reader knows they will. It is a really good device and really helps to up the pace – moving us back and forth from an Austrian ski resort to the damp, grey chilly early days of a London New Year. Both places are portrayed brilliantly – the depressing leaden skies that so often come with a British winter being replaced by the brilliance of bright blue skies and clean snow.

“New Year’s Day, 1951 was as dreary a day as an English winter can devise. It dawned with a bitter wind, while rain and sleet drove in a mixture of perishing misery across drab London streets. At nine o’clock, a half-hearted pallid light shone on throngs of office workers who battled their way through slush and gale or stood in depressing queues at bus stops. After that half-hearted effort at daybreak, a sort of sullen deterioration set in, and by midday a yellow gloom was deepening to obstinate darkness.”

In Bloomsbury, London, a boarding house fire leads to the discovery of a rather gruesome scene. A man slumped over a gas fire, burnt beyond recognition – in a house had been assumed to be empty. There is little if anything for the police to go on, unsure whether this is murder or a tragic accident. However, one strange clue does suggest the possible involvement of a skier.

Meanwhile, a large party of skiers meet at the golden arrow arch in Victoria station on New Year’s Day to begin their journey to an Austrian ski resort. There are fifteen of them, the sixteenth member of the party will be arriving by plane. They are excited to be off – looking forward to blue skies and skiing in sunshine after the drabness of London streets. Bridget Manners is the organiser of the party – harried to pieces by a multitude of last minute changes that have been taking place. While several members of the party know each other quite well – others are total strangers, being friends or acquaintances of friends who have jumped at the chance of a New Year’s skiing holiday as various members of the party drop out or fall ill at the eleventh hour. One member of the party is running very late – and only just makes the train – but eventually they are all off.

The one slightly frustrating thing about the novel’s opening which starts with the skiing party at Victoria, is that we are introduced to a large cast of characters immediately and learn practically nothing about most of them. As the novel progresses I realised this was intentional and necessary to the plot – and quite clever – as the reader ends up as unsure as the holiday makers themselves about who is who. This feeling is added to successfully with several jokey conversations about the horror of people’s passport photographs and how they could almost be anybody.

Back at the fire damaged house Inspector Brook must decide what direction the case is to go – he is clearly a fairly sharp man himself but Scotland Yard are soon consulted and he finds himself working with Inspector Rivers as well as the fire investigators. The police also have reason to believe that the death of the man in the fire damaged house may well be connected to another unsolved crime. Inspector Rivers is also very interested in the evidence which points to a skier having been involved – and so soon the police are on the trail of parties leaving for ski resorts on New Year’s Day. It doesn’t take them long to find out about Bridget’s party.

“In the intense light, reflected back from white ground and roofs and slopes, everybody looked different: dark was darker, fair was fairer, colour was brighter. Clearly defined, sharp cut, brilliantly lit, everything had a quality of vividness and vitality which was exciting, so that fatigue was forgotten and laughter bubbled up in a world which was as lovely as a fairy-tale.”

In Austria things get off to a great start, the weather is perfect, and the party have started to bond together well. Some of the skiers are staying in the hotel with others in lodges in the grounds. A couple of days into the trip and one of the skiers finds he has some money missing – this is the start of the party beginning to wonder about some of the members of the group. Then Bridget’s friends back in England contact her to say a police inspector has been asking questions about her tour group.

This is a brilliantly immersive mystery, with two wonderfully evocative settings. Interestingly, Martin Edwards in his introduction says the novel was based loosely on a ski trip Carol Carnac herself took with a group of friends with the character of Kate a self-portrait of the author herself.  

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