Slay Bells (written ca1956; published posthumously 2021) by Eunice Mays Boyd with Elizabeth Reed Arden
Christmas is coming to the Big Five and a Half. Santa has surprises in his bag of goodies...but not all of them are good. When the Big Five and a Half, a group of high school students--five young men and one young woman--who were all voted "Most Likely to Succeed," were leaving high school for bigger and better things, they met for a farewell picnic in Mariposa. They and their influential teacher Mr. Northcliffe expect to see great success in the very near future and they decide to have a reunion party on Christmas Day ten years down the road to see if their expectations have been met.
Christmas Day ten years later isn't quite the festive occasion they expect. Only three of their number are doing well. There have been divorces and affairs. One of the group is in prison and the one who started with the most is nearly broke. Even their teacher has met with hard times. His application for a premier post was turned down--apparently because at least one of his references (all from the Big Five and a Half) was less than glowing.
As the members of the group prepare for the party they are all dreading, Santa Claus begins making the rounds. He has a little heart-to-heart talk with them--reminding them of all the ways they have been naughty during the last ten years. At the end of his visit, he offers a chocolate treat...laced with poison. At least three will be dead before Santa is dragged off to an icy jail cell instead of the North Pole.
A short--more novella than novel--mystery with thrillerish overtones. Overall the plot is a good one and I wish that Boyd had left a full-length manuscript that explored the characters and action a bit more. As I followed Santa to the next visit, I kept having to change my mind about who was hiding behind those snowy-white whiskers. The tension level is good and the story works well as a morality play--just what is the cost of success? And is success really measured in dollars and cents or the size of your house or the clothes that you wear? I did find the ending a bit abrupt, otherwise I might have given a slightly higher star rating. ★★★ and 1/2
First line: Through the doorway to the hall (Honduras mahogany--how much had that door cost per square foot when he built the house three years ago?), Irving Pluit hear the strains of "Noel."
Last line: "I'm Cecil Northcliffe, and I taught them all."
Deaths = three poisoned