Thus, Crossed Skis runs on two parallel tracks: In London, Scotland Yard man Rivers gathers up the clues to identify and hunt down his criminal while Kate Reid, Frank Harris, and 14 others (one in the group arrived separately to make the count 16) enjoy the landscape and plan their village itineraries. Problem Number One is that, while the police investigation has a decent forward momentum, the skiing party is stupefyingly stagnant, filled with endless desultory conversations about the village, the weather, the ski conditions, the lunches (boxed or taken at the hotel; you can’t order both!) and the aptitude of each visitor on the trails and slopes.
I admit that buried in these exchanges are a few clues that will allow readers to spot the imposter, but there is nothing plot-wise for the characters to do. Carnac stirs up some consternation among her cast by having a few pound notes disappear from one guest’s room and reappear elsewhere, but the reveal of having a murderer in their midst doesn’t occur until the novel’s climax. So the large party assembled (and the reader) is literally waiting for a sort of detective ex machina to move us into the conclusion. With Inspector Rivers a continent away, there is very little pressure or incentive for either wolf or sheep to make a move that would translate into engaging dramatic conflict.
Problem Number Two is Carnac’s choice to keep her fictional skiing party at sixteen people, a sincere but ill-conceived homage to her own traveling group of sixteen and their trip to Lech am Arlberg the year before. As a result, the fictional narrative is awash in too many Bridgets and Pippas and Janes and Ians and Derricks and Nevilles, and only a few who get more stage time actually register as reasonably defined characters. It is likely that, because the author used this novel to pay tribute to her own recent holiday with 15 befriended travelers, Carnac/Rivett was unwilling to truly besmirch her creations (i.e., craft potentially unflattering but memorable portraits) to service the story. As a result, characters are generically nice and irritatingly nondescript. She may have avoided offense, but she has also stayed clear of any vivid characterization to engage the reader.
There is one person in the group whom Carnac allows to build a mystique, and that is Robert O’Hara, a self-proclaimed Scotsman (is he, though?) and quick-tempered ski expert. From the start, O’Hara is an unknown variable for Kate and her confidants, not suspected of murder – the murder inquiry is still anchored in London – but because he appears to be Not Who He Seems, or at least not one of their generically friendly party. To her credit, Carnac delivers a decent snowy chase climax and an enjoyable dénouement where Kate lists the fair-play clues that the criminal Gray has dropped during exchanges. I liked the last 30 pages immensely; I just wanted the previous 150 to find some means of activation for the ski party’s narrative. Talk of box lunches and a few missing pound notes can only take one so far.