Ten Tips for a Murderous Country Weekend
Well, the holiday season is nigh upon us and perhaps you, too, are anticipating a round of weekend house parties at remotely located castles, mansions, and chateaux where many of the guests have long-buried antipathies toward one another. You know the old saying: When you mix blackmail, adultery, and sherry, someone is certain to die. (Quite rightly. Sherry is a disgusting beverage.)As if that weren’t daunting enough, it’s so hard to know the proper hostess gift for these things. Indeed, a country weekend where someone gets murdered is rife with problems of etiquette. And then one would so hate to be killed. But although one may very well wish to stay home and sip one’s toddy with only the lions and a pet eagle for company, one must be brave and do one’s social duty from time to time.In my fiction, I have a fondness for people doing quite bad things in lovely places. This is based on my preference for traveling to exquisite and culturally interesting cities like Prague and London and Vienna to do my research (rather than spending weeks exploring the turbulent netherworld of, say, Scranton.) But it is also based on my personal experience. How many times have I gassed up the Cessna and headed to a country estate with the chill of foreboding under my Burberry-covered heart? That is why I have created this guide, which I hope will be of some help to you in the coming months, particularly in the socially fraught moments before and after discovering a pastoral crime scene.
- Pitch some woo! There’s no sense sitting around alone waiting for someone to keel over and liven up the weekend at Aunt Eunice’s castello. Ladies: Choose wisely. Sir Aquiline Nose is not always going to be the most entertaining in the boudoir. Ask yourself who would play your prospective lover in the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries adaptation of your weekend, and remind yourself that character actors always try harder. Gentlemen: Be a good Boy Scout and come prepared. Love in the greenhouse, or the stables, or the pantry is always a good idea, but your paramour will appreciate nice lighting and a discreet exit.
- There is a high probability you will all be roused from your beds by blood-curdling screams, a shotgun blast, or a hysterical servant. An attractive set of crisp monogrammed pajamas or a silk peignoir ensemble will be necessary if one is to look one’s best in the corridor. Bunny-eared slippers will lend a welcome piquancy to the event.
- If someone suggests grouse hunting in the early morning fog, why not opt to sleep in or catch up on the latest New Yorker? The grouse will thank you, you will avoid the “accidental” shooting, and have something interesting to discuss at dinner. Which leads me to…
- Remember that being a guest has its expectations as well as its privileges. You must provide amusement, most commonly in the form of conversation. (People are not really amused by the art of mime.) If I run out of topics, I find that crying out, “Oh really, Mother!” is generally apropos. There is always likely to be a mother about, saying something not quite quite. And if there isn’t, everyone can have a nice laugh, thinking about their own mothers, and all the maddeningly inappropriate things she had to say at the last murder. Silly Mummy.
- Watch what you eat! Besides wanting to keep one’s corpus both agile and fetching, you never know who’s trying to poison you. It’s a good idea to have your valet pack you a hamper of edibles, though, of course, Phineas Badman may sneak into your room while you’re out on the moors and sprinkle arsenic on your saltines. I travel with a chemistry set, but if you haven’t the proper equipment, best to stick to a liquid diet. Pack that flask.
- Remain calm when questioned by the constable: Yes, it’s unnerving when Cousin Fiona suddenly turns up dead in the library, not to mention what one feels seeing bloodstains on the rug Great-Uncle Cecil hauled back from the Orient. But one must retain one’s composure (and have plenty of soda water on hand). Don’t be afraid to mention that solving murders is your hobby, and offer your services gratis. The police adore that.
- If you are, in fact, the murderer, do not point the finger at a servant. Yes, sometimes one has a snoot-full too many and things get out of hand at the whist table. It’s regrettable, and you may think that there’s no sense going to gaol for a crime that can be pinned on someone who already knows what it’s like to live in a small, windowless room and urinate into a bucket. However, following your accusation, you will get the most dreadful service for the rest of the weekend. I recommend the “local burglar” or “random prowler” excuse.
- Bring an annoying dog. Everyone loves an annoying dog! If he bites and is called Eustace, I will share my flask with you.
- Don’t forget the bread-and-butter note! In all the post-murder flurry of activity and yellow crime-scene tape, it’s all too easy to forget one’s manners. But a good guest always remembers to send a thank-you, and remember Magnus’s motto: If you have nothing to apologize for, then it wasn’t much of a party.