A CHRISTMAS ESCAPE
By Anne Perry
Ballantine, $18, 176 pages
Anne Perry is one of the few authors who could make a poignant Christmas fable out of a murder, an orphan and an exploding volcano.
Ms. Perry’s specialty is Victorian crime and how law enforcement hunted down aristocratic criminals. Stromboli, the unpredictable and terrifying volcano on an idyllic Mediterranean island, dominates the tranquil scene of a small group seeking a Yuletide vacation of blue skies and tranquility. Lonely widower Charles Latterly arrives at a tiny, picturesque hotel to join an ill-matched selection of guests who include an unhappily married couple, a Blimpish colonel, a successful novelist who is not what he seems, and a frail older man who is the guardian and only protector of 14-year-old Candace, an unusually sensitive teenager. Latterly is struggling with making his life more meaningful, and it is especially depressing for him that he felt no deep ache of bereavement. “It forced him to realize that perhaps he had felt alone for a long time.”
As he looks toward the harsh beauty of the mountain, his driver tells him, “She sleep now. She wake up. You see.” He is proved frighteningly right.
There are rumblings of psychological upheaval among the group as well as even more ominous heavings from the looming volcano above the little farm. Stromboli is a real presence in the plot, controlling the movements of the characters simply by the threat of its unpredictability and the terror of exploding bombs of burning lava when the monstrous mountain demonstrates what it is capable of in wrath. As Latterly sees it, “The shattering noise from far up the mountain, so loud that it seemed to reverberate around the sky. A gout of flame shot into the air so vivid it burned scarlet even through the smoke and lava spewed around it in ever widening fountains of liquid fire.”
In the ruins of the little hotel are two bodies. One is that of Stefano, the owner who becomes a victim of the terror with which he has lived so long. The other is the objectionable Walker-Bailey, the most unpopular of the guests, who has been murdered in one of the guest rooms. The remainder of the terrified little group flee to the safety to be found far below on the beach, but it is a long and dangerously winding journey, and Latterly finds himself the involuntary guardian of young Candace, whose Uncle Roger is dying of a heart attack and is unlikely to survive the nightmare of a blazing mountain. He begs Latterly to care for the teenager before he dies and the younger man finds himself saddled with a responsibility he has no desire to assume. That situation becomes more interesting when Candace confides that her uncle had been swindled over the sale of a best-selling book that was, in fact, the work of her late grandmother. And the swindler is one of those gathered on the island.
As the strange little group struggles down the roaring mountain to the sea, characters emerge. Ms. Perry has a capacity in her Christmas stories to turn even violent death into a parable. Latterly, lonely and depressed after his wife’s death, finds himself regaining interest in what is going on around him. The drama of Stromboli takes hold of the fragile humans staggering in its perilous wake. The unhappy couple disintegrates with the murder of the husband, especially since his widow has already become more than fond of another member of the party. The celebrity author is exposed as the fraud he is, and Candace becomes a focus of the group. She not only trusts Latterly, she provides him with crucial information that he can use to help her financially, as well as support her emotionally. She is remarkably mature for her years, yet at no time in the plot does she appear to be more than a child.
As Latterly reflects, Candace would “grow up one day and be like her grandmother, passionately alive.” And the battered little group plods along the beach while the mountain becomes “a beacon in the distance, still sending scarlet and orange and gold fire up into the night.”
When they at last reach a village on the water, strangers approach them and offer cakes and wine. Latterly reflects that in the light of hundreds of candles they perhaps looked better than they would by day. It is then that bells begin to ring and Latterly realizes “like a shaft of light out of darkness, what day it was.” This was Christmas, and suddenly he remembers the words of one of those who had died in the mountain blast: “Time of hope, for everyone.”
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.