Anne Perry's A Christmas Journey

The historical mystery novel is Anne Perry’s forté. She is best known for her William Monk and Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series (see my blog on Paragon Walk), both set in Victorian England. From 2003 to 2007, she wrote a series of World War I mystery novels. In 2003, Anne Perry also published the first of her annual Victorian Christmas mysteries. Although all of her historical mysteries are skillfully written and highly readable, her Christmas novellas are my personal favourites (see my blog on A Christmas Secret). Indeed the holiday season would not be complete without them.

Anne Perry may be particularly skilled at writing murder mysteries because of her highly unusual experience – she is the one writer who has an insider's knowledge of murder. When she was teenager, she and a friend were convicted and sentenced for murder. It all began when the friend’s mother would not let Anne move to South Africa with the family. The pair of friends decided to kill the mother using a brick in a stocking. The girls served five years in prison and were given new identities at the end of their sentence. Anne eventually became a skilled writer, one who managed to keep her dark secret for 40 years.

A Christmas Journey begins with a holiday get-together at Apple-cross, a posh country mansion. Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, a wealthy Victorian socialite, witnesses the rivalry and cruel exchange of words between Gwendolyn Kilmuir and Isobel Alvie, two young widows. The next morning Gwendolyn is found dead, apparently by suicide. Everyone blames Isobel Alvie for the tragedy. The host, Omegus Jonus, invents a plan of atonement for Isobel – a journey to the Scottish highlands to break the tragic news to Gwendolyn’s mother. Lady Vespasia accompanies her friend on this harsh winter journey, a trip that is filled with a number of unexpected surprises.

Perry’s characters are drawn with penetrating psychological acumen. As The Wall Street Journal points out,
There is more to “A Christmas Journey” than a vexing puzzle neatly solved. This brief work has an almost Jamesian subtlety, and with its powerful message of responsibility and redemption – “We need both to forgive and to be forgiven” – it conveys a moral force in keeping with the season. (Nolan 2003)
Lady Vespasia is a particularly vivid and likeable character in the novel.

But what will remain in your mind long after finishing the book is the incredible journey through wild and inhospitable environments. No one describes windswept seasides and violent landscapes more effectively than Perry in her Christmas mystery novels. The journey in this novella is reminiscent of the harsh winter trek in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Isobel Alvie, like Sir Gawain, undertakes this snowbound journey in order to pass a moral test of character.

The stark contrast between murder and the season of goodwill has inspired many great novels (see my list of recommended Christmas mysteries). If you are looking for a suspenseful holiday mystery that is rich in character and setting, you will find it in A Christmas Journey.

Nolan, Tom. “Review / Books: Tidings of Murder and Suspense.” The Wall Street Journal. December 12, 2003.

Perry, Anne. A Christmas Journey. New York: Ballantyne, 2003.