Buoyed up by the success of my post ranking Anthony Berkeley’s novels, I ambitiously decided to do a ranking of all the Christmas mysteries that I have read, thereby updating a Top 10 post I did in the first year of my blog recommending 9 titles, with space for others to recommend title number 10. Several years on and many more Christmas mysteries under my belt, I decided to go not for a Top 10 list, not even for Top 20, but a TOP 32 LIST!!!! (Hence the word epic in the post title). And yes, I am aware, as I type these words, that this list is going to be controversial and maybe even, dare I say it, contentious. There are some big names included and I know for some I will have placed them too low and for others not low enough! I am also sure that everyone will disagree with my number one choice and that many won’t have even read it. Though I am kind of pleased with the variety of mystery novel styles which feature in my Top 5. Ranking stories is always a highly subjective matter, so even if the rankings don’t match your own, the list as a whole might just give you some new ideas of other Christmas themed mysteries to read.
Due to this being such a long list, you shouldn’t be dismayed if you find a personal favourite made it to only number 19 or 11, as I would say all books descending from number 21 are well worth taking a look at and the difference in quality between some of the titles is no more than a gnat’s breath.
Anyways without further ado read on to see which titles are the equivalent of getting an x-box or ______ (choose your own high end gift), and which titles are akin to a scratchy woolly jumper with an embarrassing seasonal image on the front…
- There Came Both Mist and Snow (1940) by Michael Innes
Regular readers of the blog will not be surprised by my decision to place two of Innes’ titles at the bottom of the list. For me these really are the equivalent of the Christmas jumper which brings you out in a rash. Time after time I’ve been lured in to reading one of Innes’ novels, which has a beguilingly unusual premise and promises an unconventional mystery. Yet as a rule, (with only one exception), I have been let down with plots that aren’t worth the read. Yet for both outré and more conventional titles by Innes I have found pacing to be a consistent issue. Innes’ long-winded writing style is not one I’ve developed a fondness for and the same goes for John Appleby, his series sleuth. Oddly for all the interminable description found in Innes’ novels I never get much of a sense of what Appleby is like. All of these issues and more are ones I encountered in They Came Both Mist and Snow and Lament for a Maker, so consequently they ended up bottom of the heap.
That said, if I am bumped off in the next few days, surrounded by a circle of Innes’ novels, then the alibis of Innes’ many fans should be checked up upon. Hmm, perhaps I ought to start a new life for myself in Mexico…
- Lament for a Maker (1938) by Michael Innes
30. Groaning Spinney (1950) by Gladys Mitchell
Mitchell, like Innes, is another author I have tried many times and in the majority of instances come away disappointed. What perhaps prevented her from ending up in Innes’ position on the list, is the fact she can at least provide the readers with an interesting sleuth. Once more poor pacing and a story that drags on far too long, is a problem which dogs this text, (especially when it comes to delivering the solution), and there are too many parts in this story where very little happens. Many interviews take place, yet a high proportion yield little to no information and the investigation into what initially seems like a promising case, lacks purpose and drive.
So… death warrant number 2 is signed then…
- The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson
Too much suspect prevarication, when under questioning, is what sets this investigation off to a slow start. The investigation is also prolonged by Merrivale impeding the police’s efforts, such as preventing certain suspects from being interviewed. His desire to be the star of the show and to hold on to information until the very end also leads to some questionable consequences. The nail in the coffin though is Merrivale’s sexist attitude towards women, which comes out in his advice to his nephew, who seems about as pleased to hear it as the reader. Other issues also cropped up, which I mention more fully in my review of this title. However, I have enjoyed lots of other Carr novels, so hopefully I won’t end up as the star attraction in a locked room murder any time soon.
- The Christmas Egg (1958) by Mary Kelly
This is one of my latest Christmas reads, but unlike quite a few others who have reviewed this title, this one didn’t really work for me. Whilst I enjoyed some moments of character interaction, I found the prose style too densely packed with sensory information. Despite a marsh-set police operation, hampered by snow, the tension levels of this piece are not particularly high.
- Crime at Christmas (1934) by C. H. B. Kitchen
Detective Inspector Parry, a principal character in this book, was not one I got on with, finding him a little too chummy, snobbish and verbose. Kitchin does provide a number of twists and surprises in this book though and for readers who like a complex puzzle, this story has quite an elaborate one to contend with. This mystery is a little weak stylistically at times, such as too much description at points, with some paragraphs reminding me of an episode of Changing Rooms, (a reference for British readers).
- The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay
This is one of my pre-blog reads, so there is no handy review to remind myself of what I did and didn’t like about it. So, this title is one which I have ranked based on my Goodreads rating. A re-read at a future date may see it shift a little, though I do have the recollection of finding the prose style a bit dry.
- Murder for Christmas (1949) by Francis Duncan
This read left me in a bit of a quandary, as there were elements which could be viewed favourably or negatively, in particular certain reversals of character. Were they shocking surprises? Or were they last minute switches which the reader is unprepared for? On more firm ground the pacing of this story is fairly slow, interspersed with certain spurts of activity. The ending is one such moment and the reader is laden with last minute information about the suspects; a feature I am not hugely keen on.
- Death of a Doll (1947) by Hilda Lawrence
The first part of this tale excellently showcases Lawrence’s skill in creating tension and suspense, as well as a claustrophobic atmosphere. There is more than one sleuthing lead in this title, though they do not work in conjunction with one another and this is where the plot becomes unstuck, as information and investigative tasks are repeated, with the ending too long in arriving. A shorter page count would have done this book wonders.
23. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh
A while back Brad once wrote on my blog that ‘Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel failed to thrill despite an unusual set-up’ and I felt this very much summed up my own feelings as well. I won’t bore readers with my usual sentiments on Inspector Alleyn, though I feel both he and Appleby would be well matched in a competition for the detective most like the colour beige. Nevertheless, whilst this book was never going to make it into the top 10, I did find it a better read than some of Marsh’s other novels. I also think this is one of the titles I think has been positioned to satisfy very few readers, as ardent fans will want it much higher, whilst others will think it should have been in the 30s.
At this rate the queue to finish me off is going to be quite a long one…
22. Envious Casca (1941) by Georgette Heyer
Whilst my interest in reading Marsh’s books has definitely waned over time, I think I am still undecided as to Heyer. They’re not hugely original works, with settings and character types being remarkably similar. Yet it is the sort of story that Heyer tells quite well at times and there is at least one book where she really took me by surprise. I think over time I may re-read more of her work so I can firm up my opinions about her.
21. Mystery in White (1937) by J. Jefferson Farjeon
This is a title that I re–read last year and on re-reading found that I hadn’t enjoyed it as much. Although that doesn’t mean it lacks recommendable qualities; the opening paragraphs being one example, capturing the British attitude towards snow wonderfully. This book is an interesting fusion of thriller and detection, yet I found the second half of the book ran out of steam a bit, despite there being much activity.
20. The Advent of Murder (2013) by Martha Ockley
Ockley is an able storyteller, who quickly gets you engrossed in the lives of her characters. It is this strength which has most influenced its place on the list. Fans of puzzle-clue mysteries probably won’t enjoy this book as much, as the distribution of the clues is quite imbalanced, with the majority falling in the final third.
19. Black Headed Pins (1938) by Conyth Little
Most of the Little sisters’ mysteries include the word black and it is usually associated with a particular object, pins in this case. Unlike in other novels by them though, the pins in this narrative are rather extraneous and could easily have been expunged from the text entirely, their arrival into the book being far too late and forced. Whilst I had some issues with the cluing of this book, the characters and dialogue are very well written and they made this an entertaining, as well as a humorous read.
18. The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) by Nicholas Blake
Update: As I predicted, a re-read did boost this title’s place moving it from No. 20 to No. 18. This is structurally a very interesting story and the case being investigated has a number of unusual features. It is a Christmas country house, but not the kind you’re expecting…
- Murder at Beechlands (1948) by Maureen Sarsfield
This is a country hotel-set mystery, in which the inhabitants soon become snowed in and one of them is also Inspector Perry who has a suspicious death and a theft on his hands, with no outside support available. Sarsfield, like Hilda Lawrence, is very good at setting up and maintaining a tense atmosphere, as the guests struggle to cope with the unfolding, and often violent, events. Pacing and a the need for a slightly more clued solution were this story’s main issues.
16. Another Little Christmas Murder (1947) by Lorna Nicholl Morgan
This is another snowed-in mystery, unusually set in Yorkshire, which is also enjoyably action packed. I remember finding this an entertaining read, with a suitably eerie atmosphere at points. It was also reprinted three years ago, so is much easier to come by, than some of the other titles on this list. A rushed ending and an unsatisfactory romance element are what let this book down a little.
- Catt Out of the Bag (1939) by Clifford Witting
This was my latest read on the blog, so in theory my memories on this one should be pretty good! Witting’s writing style is one that is growing on me the more I encounter it and social comedy is definitely his forte. This tale has all the accoutrements a Christmas mystery ought to have, excepting snow. Despite issues with extraneous material Witting offers a sneaky festive mystery that begins with a disappearing donation collector for a charitable carol group.
- The Crime at Noah’s Ark (1931) by Molly Thynne
This is a mystery with a crime that has quite intricate logistics and like others in this list takes place at a snowed in hotel, where guests can only base their opinion of others on what they’ve decided to share about themselves. The resolving of this case is imperfect, but I think Thynne gives readers a fiendish mystery, which will require their little grey cells to be working at their best, to solve.
13. Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (2015) ed. Martin Edwards
This is one of two short story collections to feature in this list and it provides readers with quite the assortment of mystery tales. My favourite stories from the anthology are: Edgar Wallace’s ‘Stuffing,’ Marjorie Bowen’s ‘Cambric Tea,’ Ethel Lina White’s ‘Waxworks’ and Nicholas Blake’s ‘A Problem in White.’
12. The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018) ed. Martin Edwards
The variety of Christmas mysteries continues in this second short story collection from the British Library. I had many favourites in this anthology, which were Cyril Hare’s ‘Sister Bessie,’ Donald Stuart’s ‘The Christmas Card Crime,’ Carter Dickson’s ‘Blind Man’s Hood,’ Ronald Knox’s ‘The Motive’ and the ‘Crime at Lark Cottage’ by John Bingham.
11. The Murders Near Mapleton (1929) by Brian Flynn
Lovers of intricate puzzles will enjoy this mystery, which reminded me somewhat of an onion, with the plot revealing further layers, as it progressed. Flynn has a talent for utilising quirky clues which he demonstrates here, with one being particularly appropriate for the holiday season, the Christmas cracker.
10. Black Express (1945) by Conyth Little
Hooray! We’re finally into the top 10. I was in two minds as to whether I should include this title or not. Unlike Witting’s offering it is not your typical festive mystery, mainly because it is set in Australia, meaning the characters are needing sun cream and shorts rather than jumpers and mittens. However, I felt this might be the perfect Christmas read for people who don’t like the conventional trappings of Christmas.
It’s also very much true that I enjoyed this book a lot, with its unusual train setup, as well as the intriguing premise involving identity and amnesia, that the Littles begin their mystery with. Murder, of course, is in the offing, but then there is also the mystery of the phantom dog barking to be solved…
9. Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) by E. & M. A. Radford
This is a mystery which starts off deceptively simple yet is soon revealed to be far trickier than is initially assumed. I think this is a well-clued and well-drawn theatrical mystery, though unsurprisingly I was tripped up by more than one red herring. Rug pulling is certainly a hazard to anyone who reads this book, though I don’t think it is an eventuality any mystery fan is dismayed by.
8. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) by Agatha Christie
I can imagine this is one of the titles readers will be immediately scanning for in this list. Hopefully people won’t be too upset I haven’t placed it higher. Christie works with a large cast of characters in this book yet does a great job at differentiating them all. I enjoy the interplay between physical and psychological clues in this mystery and on the matter of clues I think this book has some of the most memorable clues that Christie used in her stories. There are more moments of excess in the solution to this one, but somehow Christie gets away with it quite well.
7. Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith
This is quite a dark and Dickensian inverted mystery and in keeping with the Black Express, this tale would make a good contrast for those who have had a surfeit of traditional Christmas mysteries. Psychological drama is the focus of this tale and unlike some classic crime novels, Meredith is not afraid to get out of the country house and depict situations of urban poverty and deprivation. The ending falls a little flat, which is probably why it didn’t make the top 5.
6. The Wrong Murder (1940) by Craig Rice
This book has one of Rice’s best plot concepts and it is wonderfully constructed, as well as fast paced. It’s hard to get bored with a Rice novel! The main characters fly by the seat of their pants, narrowly avoiding jail, whilst consuming their own body weight in alcohol, yet there is still a satisfying puzzle for the readers to unravel, which Rice ensures is full of surprises.
5. Dancing Death (1931) by Christopher Bush
Once more we are faced with the snowbound country house, yet this tale has the added festive twist of a fancy-dress ball. Lights and phone lines are damaged, and a canister of poisonous gas is also stolen. This does not bode well… When I read this book two years ago, I was impressed with the complexity of the mystery posed, along with the unusual deaths it involves and very importantly, with the simplicity of Bush’s explanation to it all. Bush also goes for an unconventional structure to opening his mystery, which I also enjoyed. My only niggle with this one was the ending which lacked a bit in terms of pacing.
4. The Long Shadow (1975) by Celia Fremlin
This is another unconventional Christmas-set mystery, which is darkly comic and also a brilliant exploration of bereavement. Fremlin gives us a compelling protagonist, yet not one we can wholly trust, which keeps us intrigued, as the tension and sense of unease mounts. You won’t get a rose-tinted view of Christmas and having to deal with relatives coming to visit for an indefinite period of time, but I think Fremlin’s portrayal of celebrating Christmas is a bit easier to identify with.
3. Thou Shell of Death (1936) by Nicholas Blake
Despite having re-read a few Blake titles for the blog, I have yet to get around to re-reading this one, which is odd given how much I enjoyed it. The seasonal weather is used to great effect in this impossible crime mystery and this is also Georgina Cavendish’s debut appearance in the series. She is an excellent character who I really like, and I love the fact that she is an adventurous explorer. This is one of Blake’s novels where plot, writing style and characters all perform to a high degree and along with The Beast Must Die, is one of my favourite reads by him.
2. An English Murder (1951) by Cyril Hare
As the clock strikes midnight and heralds the beginning of Christmas day, murder also strikes in this country house mystery, in which the inhabitants are indeed snowbound and unable to use the telephone. Yet Hare makes this much more than a Christmas set mystery, as it is very much a canvas for reflecting on the post-war state of the nation. Yet mystery fans will also be satisfactorily surprised by the choice of killer and their motivations.
- Dancing with Death (1947) by Joan Coggins
So, my top choice… hands up who has read it? Coggins’ Lady Lupin series is one I have long been a champion of, and I would argue that the best is indeed left until last. Lady Lupin has matured in character, losing some of her ditzy manner, yet her role as a comic amateur sleuth remains undiminished, as social misunderstandings abound. Whilst Coggins’ plotting is not always her strong point in some of her earlier efforts, that is certainly not the case here, with an unusual form of murder, as well as an ending with a brilliant twist that I definitely didn’t see coming. In some ways I feel like a short paragraph doesn’t really do this book justice, so you’ll just have to track down a copy of this book to see for yourselves why I love like I do!
So, there is my list folks! I better press the post button quickly before the urge to move titles up and down list descends on me once more…