In mid-December 1857, just two weeks before Christmas, the flame and smoke of the Indian Rebellion leaves the city of Cawnpore in a state of chaos. In 120-degree heat, the ghosts of the siege are everywhere. Horrified British soldiers find the bloody corpses of more than 400 men, women and children. Morale suffers as the soldiers question what to believe in and who they can trust.
Although author Anne Perry was born in today’s England, she seems well-acquainted with life in India during the Victorian period. No doubt it is because of two of her bestselling mysteries series featuring the beloved protagonists William Monk and Charlotte and Thomas Pitt. Her nine earlier holiday novels, including A Christmas Promise, A Christmas Journey, A Christmas Guest and A Christmas Secret offer tales of holiday sleuthing in the classic mystery tradition. With The Christmas Garland, she gives us the gift of a new story, employing an attentive technique that manages to be equally intriguing and sweeping in its message of faith and redemption.
Young lieutenant Victor Narraway has been assigned the thankless task of questioning witnesses and preparing a defense of John Tallis, arrested for aiding an escaped prisoner and murdering prison guard Chutter Singh. Tallis insists that he is innocent, but he is the only soldier whose whereabouts cannot be confirmed. With the events of the rebellion only a year old and hundreds of British deaths, the soldiers in the regiment long for revenge. Perry likes to put her characters in stressful situations, so in addition to being only twenty years old and not an attorney, Narraway has a mere 24 hours to complete his task.
At the sound of the alarm, Privates Grant, Attwood and Peterson were the first soldiers to arrive at the prison after the murder. Chutter Singh was on the floor dying, yet he managed to warn Grant, who was the first to arrive, that Dhuleep Singh had information about the patrol. If Dhuleep had not escaped, the patrol would not have been ambushed. The only man unaccounted for was Tallis. The chaos that has spread across India has left them all in a state of madness, wondering if there is indeed a God, convinced that justice must prevail or everything is meaningless.
While he is convinced of the futility of the defense, Victor Narraway must do the job Latimer commanded him to do without prejudice. The trial of John Tallis is compelling; the pages fly by, filled with suspense and a breathless sense of urgency. Narraway needs great faith to persevere in the worst of times, demonstrating Perry’s conviction that stressful situations reveal the truth of who her characters are. It also takes great skill to make a successful, credible courtroom drama. Perry makes it look easy as her story winds down to its surprising but inevitable close.