Now most normal people save their Christmas themed mystery novels until December, or November at very earliest. Not me it seems. Looking back at this year from about March I have been inadvertently reading mystery novels set at Christmas. Sometimes this was because it was the next book in the series by an author I really love, whilst at other times it was a book I was reading for the Tuesday Night Bloggers or for a reading challenge and at other times quite frankly I didn’t realise the book was set at Christmas until I read it. Last December I gave a Top 10 list of Christmas Mysteries, so this year I decided to recap on this year’s Christmas reads, before picking my favourite.
Dancing with Death (1947) by Joan Coggin
This is the final Lady Lupin mystery and it takes place over Christmas and New Year, centring on a party of friends, a gathering which of course brings old grievances and wounds to the surface. I loved this book for its comic narrative style and humour, though in comparison to the first Lady Lupin novel, Lupin has matured over the quartet of books. The characters are also engaging to follow and I was interested by the comments made about post-war Britain after WW2.
The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson
The centres around another Christmas party, full of characters who are at odds with each other and this animosity seems to come to a head when one of the characters is found murdered in the pavilion, a murder due to various factors is seemingly impossible to commit. I enjoyed this read much less as there were issues with pacing, underdeveloped characters and an over packed plot, along with a solution which felt a bit too convenient.
An English Murder (1951) by Cyril Hare
By now you can probably guess what the setup of this novel is, e.g. a country house Christmas party at Warbeck Hall, full of characters who don’t get on. Though an added element with this read is that the Hall becomes snow bound, with non-functioning telephones, a situation which increases the tension of the situation when someone dies. Thankfully there is a policeman as part of the party. This was an enjoyable read and I liked the imbedded social and class critique, as well the way the book examines the state of the nation and how things might be changing. This is definitely an updated country house murder mystery reflecting the times it was published in.
The Scent of Almonds and Other Stories (2015) by Camilla Lackberg
This is the most recently published Christmas mystery I have read this year, but it too employs golden age detective fiction tropes and certainly borrows a little from Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), though the group of characters are one family rather than a group of strangers. Lackberg’s characterisation skills are great and I enjoyed the build up of tension, as well as the final solution, although I think the ending was a little too abrupt.
Murder at Beechlands (1948) by Maureen Sarsfield
Again we have the snow bound country house and the inhabitants who rub each other up the wrong way, but as a post war novel times have changed and the country house in question is in fact a hotel. A dead body soon appears, though the mysterious happenings are only just beginning. Although there were a couple of slow places in the narrative, this is definitely an action packed story and I think Sarsfield captured the group psychology really well and the final solution is satisfying though I think it could have been a bit more overtly clued.
The Crime at Noah’s Ark (1931) by Molly Thynne
This time the ill-assorted group of characters are marooned at a remote countryside inn and it is not long before masked figures appear, property is stolen or sabotaged and people turn up dead. Characters with their own secrets to hide make the discovery of the truth all that much harder for the professional and amateur sleuths. This story definitely gives its’ readers a complex mystery to grapple with and the final solution does hold some unexpected surprises.
Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (2015), ed. Martin Edwards
This is the only short story collection to feature in this list and there was a good mixture of familiar and new authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Ralph Plummer, H. C. Bailey and J Jefferson Farjeon. Though my favourite stories were by Edgar Wallace (‘Stuffing’), Marjorie Bowen (‘Cambrics’), Ethel Lina White (‘Waxworks’) and Nicholas Blake (‘A Problem in White’). As well as a variety of authors there is also a wide range of settings and plots and it is an enjoyable book to dip into for a story or two at a time.
The Wrong Murder (1940) by Craig Rice
This novel features Rice’s serial characters’ Jake Justus and Helene Brand, who have finally been able to tie the knot. Though their honeymoon plans are put on ice when it seems someone who boasted to them of being able to commit the perfect murder, has done just that. The murder takes place in the midst of a crowd of Christmas shoppers. This was a brilliant read and I felt that there was a strong puzzle at the centre of the story, even if the amateur sleuths were flying by the seat of their pants.
Another Little Christmas Murder (1947) by Lorna Nicholls Morgan
This final entry to the list takes us back to the familiar milieu of the snowbound country home where family members are intermixed with strangers who have been drawn to Wintry Wold by the inclement weather. Though this is far from your conventional country home murder and not everyone is as they seem. This was an entertaining and action packed mystery which still surprises the reader even as the solution is being unfolded. The central female character, Dylis, also appealed to me due to her independent nature, though readers won’t be surprised there is a little romance along the way for her in this story.
So which was my favourite Christmas read of the year?
For me there were two main contenders, Rice and Coggin, but in the end I plumed for Coggin’s book as Lady Lupin is an addictive and hugely entertaining character, who is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. The solution to Coggin’s novel was also very satisfying and unexpected and I think the quartet of Lady Lupin novels should be more well-known and read. Due to the way Lady Lupin develops as a character I think it better to read the books in order, starting with Who Killed the Curate? (1944). Thankfully though this book is also a Christmas mystery, so you’ve got no excuses for not trying Coggin’s delightful amateur sleuth this December.