Amidst Christmas preparations, hopefully you will all still have a little time to crack open a book and some of you may even want to get into that Christmassy mood by reading a Christmas set detective novel. Nothing like a corpse under the tree to make it feel like Christmas. So to help such people and since it would be a little silly to do such a post in August here are 10 (ish) Christmas mysteries to give a go for the first time or for more seasoned detective fiction readers a re-read…
- Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) by Agatha Christmas
I thought I would start with a more familiar one and certainly one of my favourites from the list. A locked room mystery, with Simeon Lee, the family patriarch who is a tyrant and millionaire with a questionable past as the victim. The net of suspicion is cast widely among the family members, making it a great read in that the killer is well hidden and you have to decide which clues are true and which are red herrings. The murder method itself is a good one and I think one of Christie’s most elaborate and the solution to the case is sneaky but good. So if you haven’t read this Christie already then you’ve definitely been missing out.
To read more about this book and other family centred Christie mysteries check out Brad Friedman’s post:
2. Envious Casca (1941) by Georgette Heyer (A.K.A. A Christmas Party)
Georgette Heyer often gets a raw deal when it comes to her mystery novels, with their penchant for including romance subplots and for perhaps not having the most inventive of crimes. However, although she is not in Christie’s class I think some of her novels are definitely worth seeking out. Penhallow (1942), one of her longest mysteries, in my opinion is the most psychologically developed of her detective novels and has a shocking ending. But, Envious Casca, the book I have chosen for this list is probably my second favourite and is handily Christmas themed, with yet another family patriarch getting stabbed in the back in a locked room scenario. When it comes to Golden Age detective novels, being a tyrannical family patriarch is a dangerous position to be in). A key problem for Inspector Hemingway in this story is the sheer amount of fibbing and subterfuge that the suspects get up to.
3. The Santa Klaus Murders (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay
Based on recent reviews I have read of this book, it seems this novel hasn’t found a lot of favour. I’m not saying it is her best book as I think both Death on the Cherwell (1935) and Murder Underground (1935) are superior, but I still maintain that it is worth a read. The Santa Klaus Murders is a country house murder mystery and the choice of victim is family patriarch, Sir Osmond Melbury, shot in the head whilst dressed as Santa Klaus. The usual recriminations ensue within the household. More bafflingly the one guest who could have easily done the crime, has no motive. I wouldn’t say this book breaks new ground, though from what I remember the method of murder was quite sneaky. A novel feature of the book is that the narrative is written from different people’s perspectives, which is something I remember enjoying a lot.
4. Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1938) by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Since starting my blog I have reviewed three books by Farjeon, but in fact I read this one last year and is also another of my favourites from this list. Farjeon by nature is a thriller writer in my opinion and when he attempts to do straight detective fiction as in Thirteen Guests (1936), the reading experience is poorer. However, in Mystery in White, I think Farjeon successfully manages to marry the two genres together. On Christmas Eve some passengers on a snow bound train decide to decamp to an empty country house. But that is when the mystery and murder begins and with the snow also enclosing them in the house, the tension is racked up as the characters try to unravel what is going on. If you have yet to sample any of Farjeon’s books, I would recommend starting with this one.
5. The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) by Nicholas Blake
Recently on this blog I reviewed Nigel Strangeways (the series’ amateur sleuth) final case, The Morning After Death (1966) and I was quite disappointed with it. No one likes a creepy Nigel after all. So therefore it is nice to look back at an earlier case of his and see him in a more positive light. A number of peculiar events draw Nigel to Easterham Manor, including a case of apparent suicide. However, further investigation undermines this suggestion as does the actions of someone at Easterham who seems keen to keep certain information hidden. I wouldn’t say this is the best book by Nicholas Blake but it is still a good seasonal read and without giving spoilers the use of an actual snowman in the plot is a unique and chilling one.
6. Tied Up In Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh
It also being Ngaio Marsh over at Tuesday Night Bloggers I feel like I have mentioned Ngaio Marsh too much this month. But I think any Christmas themed mysteries list would be incomplete without Marsh’s Tied Up In Tinsel. For a change it is not a badly behaved family patriarch who is killed, but an unpopular servant who vanishes after starring as Father Christmas in the household’s festivities. Despite all the servants being ex-convicts, suspicion rests more firmly on the guests and this is one of cases where Troy, Inspector Alleyn’s wife is a bit more involved.
7. The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (2013) ed. By Otto Penzler
This is a gigantic collection of Christmas themed mystery short stories (as the title suggests) and the joys of such a collection is you can dip in and out of it. It seems like a cliché but there is something for everyone (who is a crime fiction fan that is). Some personal favourites of mine include:
- ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ and ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ by Agatha Christie;
- ‘The Raffles Relics’ by E. W. Hornung;
- ‘Sister Bessie’ by Cyril Hare;
- ‘The Christmas Kitten’ by Ed Gorman and
- ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Ron Goulart.
But there are loads of other stories from Golden Age writers, humorous tales, stories from the hard boiled tradition, Sherlock Holmes pastiches, more modern short stories, more spooky/scary ones and even specifically puzzle ones, a section which two of the stories I have mentioned came from. Though at 672 pages this is perhaps not a book to take with you if you are travelling anywhere over the Christmas period.
8. The Black Headed Pins (1938) by Constance and Gwenyth Little
This has been my latest Christmas themed read, having only reviewed it this week. The Black Headed Pins, is a story of a series of deaths and mysterious happenings seen through the eyes of Mabel Ballinger’s companion. Around these events surrounds a family superstition that if a dragging noise is heard in the attic, a Ballinger will soon die by accident and when they do they will walk. However, characters and readers alike are increasingly aware that someone is giving the superstition a helping hand… If you like humorous and comic mysteries then I would definitely recommend this book and the character development and characterisation is another of the novel’s strong features.
9. Murder for Christmas (1949) by Francis Duncan
Not one of my absolute favourites from this list, but I think it does have a number of good points to recommend it and help it go beyond your average country house murder. Murder for Christmas involves a country house party, hosted by a man who loves all things Christmassy and even dresses up as Santa to put presents under the Christmas tree for his guests. However, there are underlying tensions within the group, so no reader is surprised when a Santa clad figure is found dead under the tree. Duncan has a very well thought out writing style and the strongest feature of this novel is how the characters you think you know in fact have hidden aspects, some more sinister than others.
So what is the ish all about? Where is the final suggestion? Well in all honesty I couldn’t think of another Christmas themed book which I enjoyed sufficiently and to suggest an inferior book would probably break some book blogging ethic. I have also read and reviewed Crime at Christmas (1934), but I would spare yourself that. Equally I have read Michael Innes’ Lament for a Maker (1938), but again this is one best avoided. I am aware that Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951) and The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen are also Christmas themed but since I have not read them I didn’t feel I could recommend them, though the former is definitely one I am interested in reading.
Therefore I am leaving my final slot open for your suggestions. What one book would you recommend? I’d also be interested to hear about the Hare and Queen’s novels if anyone has read these Christmas themed detective tales.