Four years ago I wrote a series of posts in which I collected the various nuggets of wisdom classic crime had to offer us on the themes of staying safe whilst on holiday, visiting country houses and becoming an actor. Remembering these posts I was surprised that I had not done such a post on Christmas – a period of time, in fiction at least, in which murder rates spike. Such an omission, though, has thankfully given me a topic for my 1200th post.
Having surveyed various Christmas set classic crime novels, the number one way to survive and in particular to avoid getting murdered, is to not turn up to family Christmas reunions. After all if you don’t go then you can’t get killed or incriminated… Alternatively it would be much safer to book a nice holiday somewhere warm, or failing that stay at home, lock the doors and play endless games of Boggle. Whatever you do, don’t spend the extra free time focusing on work. Sonia, in Ethel Lina White’s ‘Waxworks’ (1930), did not heed this advice, instead deciding to conduct a stakeout by herself to figure out why people were dying or being killed at a local waxwork museum. Naturally she has some very terrifying and unpleasant experiences…
Yet not going to see your family is possibly a bit of a big ask. Maybe you become nostalgic at such times of the year, or perhaps you are very keen on traditions and visiting your family is the done thing. There is also the issue of funds. If you are somewhat low in that department then buying a plane ticket could be out of your price range. Maybe you want to attend the reunion in order to ask for a loan. However I should point out that such plans rarely end in success, such as in Envious Casca (1941) by Georgette Heyer, and in fact all you manage to do is craft a very solid motive for yourself in whatever murder you have landed yourself in.
So if you absolutely must go then follow my advice…
Rule No. 1: Agree with your party beforehand to bring no weapons, (checks to be made upon arrival), and to dispose of any existing weapons in the host’s home, prior to the event.
This rule was inspired by Michael Innes’ There Came Both Mist and Snow (1940) in which there is more than one relative who has a fondness for firearms and the using of. Whilst there are many ways to kill people, by removing weapons such as guns, knives and arrows, you will certainly be limiting the field of choice for your prospective murderer.
Rule No. 2: Check the weather forecast before going. If snow is predicted cancel all travel plans.
There are several reasons for adhering to this rule. Snow is fun for small children eager to build snowmen or for adults to gaze at from indoors whilst holding hot drinks, but when it comes to travelling, it is simply a nightmare for all concerned. Aside from the risks of crashing your vehicle, which may be expensive to fix, there is then the additional dilemma of finding a nearby house to phone for help or stay for the night. The people at this property, if it is occupied, are complete strangers – how much can you trust them? And what chaos are you letting yourself in for? This was certainly the situation for Dylis Hughes in Another Little Christmas Murder (1947) by Lorna Nicholl Morgan and Inspector Parry in Maureen Sarsfield’s Murder at Beechlands (1948). Even an established inn or hotel cannot be presumed to be a trouble-free place, as the guests realised in Molly Thynne’s The Crime at Noah’s Ark (1931).
Public transport is also to be avoided in snowy conditions. Going by train brings you into contact with a number of strangers, whom you then have to band together with in order to find the aforementioned nearby house. Aside from the potential for these fellow travellers to be unpleasant and uncongenial company, there is also the risk you might be harbouring a killer… J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White (1937) definitely showcases this problem well, as does Donald Stuart’s ‘The Christmas Card Crime.’ Would-be criminals should also be wary of using public transport as you never know whether a delayed train journey will bring you into contact with a detective; a series of events which occurs in ‘A Problem in White’ by Nicholas Blake. Another good reason for staying home if bad weather is predicted, is that even if you make it to the country house you have been invited to, the snow can very easily trap you there, which becomes highly unawkward when the murderer then strikes. Police can’t travel along the snowbound roads, telephone lines are liable to be damaged and walking to an alternative location is not possible, as the characters learn in An English Murder (1951) by Cyril Hare.
Rule No. 3: Just ban Santa Klaus!
Now this might be the most unpopular rule in the list. Perhaps I should explain myself… When I was researching this post, it has to be said, that Santa Klaus costumes figured quite heavily and along with weapons they really are a red flag item which need to be banned from Christmas family gatherings. For instance, there are many examples of characters donning a Santa Klaus outfit, only to be discovered later to have been murdered, frequently under the Christmas tree itself. Three examples which spring to mind are The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay, Francis Duncan’s Murder for Christmas (1949) and Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up Tinsel (1972). In all of them Santa Klaus very much ends up dead… Be especially suspicious of any Santa Klaus who arrives and has not been invited to the party; their presents, as in the case of Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke (1958), are not necessarily generous offerings. If anyone insists on their being allowed to bring their Santa Klaus costume, kindly, but firmly, point out that such clothing makes for a remarkably handy disguise for anyone planning a murder… And remember if you find yourself on the run from a gang of desperate crooks, like Georgia in Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife (1939), then a Santa Klaus outfit may have benevolent disguising purposes after all. Finally, those considering yuletide employment as a department store Santa may wish to think again, as Jennifer Rowe’s Death in Store (1993), reveals the grizzly fate which can await you…
Rule No. 4: Avoid organised social activities.
This rule might be a bit trickier to follow if you are an extrovert but trust me it’s for the best. Fancy dress parties are an absolute no no, especially when the host has decreed everyone should be dressed identically, which happens in Hilda Lawrence’s Death of a Doll (1947). Proving your alibi in such a scenario is somewhat problematic as is keeping track of the person waiting to silence you. Similarly, activities such as pageants, (see Tied up in Tinsel), are also a dangerous choice, as like fancy dress parties, they provide killers with windows of opportunity within which to do their deed. Pantomimes are also risky, including for those taking part, as E. & M. A. Radford demonstrate in Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), and toasts can be hazardous too, particularly if you happen to be a rather unpleasant person. Just ask Robert Warbeck, in An English Murder, who is killed with poisoned champagne which he drinks as part of a toast as Christmas Day dawns. Oh wait you can’t… Outdoor activities cannot be overlooked either as even participating in carol singing for a charitable cause, can provide the opportunity for getting bumped off. Clifford Witting’s Catt Out of the Bag (1939) depicts this risk well. Being an unsociable person in a corner with a jigsaw has never looked so appealing. Unless of course someone knows of an example of death by jigsaw, in which case we’ll have to vetoed those also.
Rule No. 5: Stay clear of blackmail.
This is the type of rule which you ought to follow all year round, but I think the Christmas festivities heighten this criminal practice. It is a chance for the blackmailer to twist the screws on their victims more tightly and equally they may propel a blackmailee to try and eliminate the source of their problem. Both roles pose a risky venture which we can see in Cyril Hare’s ‘Sister Bessie’ (1949) and Francis Duncan’s Murder for Christmas.
Rule No. 6: Keep an eye on your valuables.
Bringing people together into one space can pose something of a security risk to your property. Be vigilant, particularly if you own expensive jewels. There are many classic crime stories which attest to this sage advice, including Mary Kelly’s The Christmas Egg (1958), Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892), Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ (1933), and G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Flying Stars’ (1911). In this latter story the jewel is stolen during a country house pantomime, which again reinforces the dangers of organised social activities.
Rule No. 7: Be on snowman alert!
One lesson we can take from Nicholas Blake’s The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) is that criminals will use anything and everything to obfuscate their deed and any evidence which will lead to them. Not even a snowman is safe! So if you end up with one in your own garden keep a close watch for any changes. Those who have read the book will know why…
Rules for hosting a Christmas family gathering
I decided a separate section was in order for those who are planning on hosting a reunion. Though after all the dangers I have previously listed, it would seem a very cavalier decision. Nevertheless, here are some handy tips to reduce the body count…
Rule No. 1: Keep schtum about any future negative actions you plan to take.
Whilst you might want to get a kick out of telling your relatives you are going to disinherit them/sell their ancestral home/marry a much younger woman and give them all your money, it is only a short lived pleasure if hours later you are murdered. Rein yourself in, smile and be pleasant, and then send them a postcard in the post come January, as you set off on that holiday to somewhere warm I mentioned at the start of this post. If you are not convinced, then I recommend reading There Came Both Mist and Snow or The Santa Klaus Murder.
Rule No. 2: Think carefully about who you invite.
Whilst obviously you are not going to invite a known killer to your party, unless you are Mr Shaitana from Cards on the Table (1936), you still need to consider how your different guests are going to react towards the others. Restrain your malicious streak and don’t invite a series of guests who cannot stand each other. It might be initially amusing to see the sparks fly but it won’t be long before murder occurs… And there is no saying who the victim will be, though Envious Casca and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), both show it is the host who cops it. Are you willing to take the risk?
Rule No. 3: Evaluate your attitude towards spending.
This is a slightly more abstract suggestion but how much or how little murder victims spent does crop up in Christmas murder mysteries. By and large there is a trend for such victims to be skinflints, yet interestingly Leo Bruce’s ‘Beef for Christmas’ (1957) shows a rich man having his life threatened due to him spending too much money. Perhaps some balance is in order.
Rule No. 4: Beware of traps!
This might seem like quite an obvious one, but it is not always that easy to spot when a trap is about to spring. After all killers can take quite some time preparing the ground before they make their move. This is the case in ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ (1909) by Baroness Orczy, in which a host is lured outside one night, with the killer having previously perpetuated a number of cattle maiming attacks in the area.
Rule No. 5: Be prepared to cancel your party.
I appreciate you may have gone to great expense and effort to organise your Christmas festivities, but are they really worth going ahead with if you know someone wants to kill you? Don’t be like the hosts in Nicholas Blake’s Thou Shell of Death (1936) or The Finishing Stroke (1958): If you receive death threats, cancel the party or conclude it early!
Rule No. 6: Beware of stranded travellers.
In the last section I made warnings about travelling during the winter and the risks of entering a nearby house for help. This time I am turning the situation around: Hosts be careful of who you offer hospitality to. Even if they turn out not to be the killer, you never know what their secret designs might be for coming to your home. Did they deliberately put their car out of action? Such suspicions feature in Christopher Bush’s Dancing Death (1931).
Final Pieces of Advice
Before I conclude my post here are some general mystery novel principles which apply more universally, yet are still pertinent at Christmas time.
- If you know something about the murder don’t keep that information to yourself. (See: Murder at Beechlands)
- Don’t let your guard down just because you are not staying at an isolated country house. Urban homes and even busy streets full of Christmas shoppers bring their own hazards. (See: The Wrong Murder (1940) by Craig Rice)
- Don’t put people’s backs up and then partake in activities such as taking tours down dark secret passageways or sleeping alone in remote secluded space like a pavilion. (See: The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson)
- If the worst comes to the worst and murder does occur, make sure precautions are taken to ensure there is no opportunity for the body being moved. (See: The Black Headed Pins (1938) by Conyth Little).