Midwinter Murders: Six of Britain's Best Christmas Crime Novels
Christmas is the time of good cheer, peace among mankind, and, it would seem, solving murders. There has been a long literary tradition of writing crime stories for the festive season, and this continues in strength today. However, rather than the gritty and terrifying stories so popular in modern fiction, recent years, and more specifically recent Christmases, have seen something of a vogue for vintage crime fiction. In these kinds of murder mysteries the focus is on the setting, the clueing, and the plotting, as Robert Davies from British Library Publishing commented:
For years, publishers have been concentrating on dark, violent, psychological crime novels, but we spotted a gap in the market for readers seeking escapist detective fiction with superb plots and period atmosphere.
Davies and his team certainly succeeded in this area, in 2014 the British Library brought out a long forgotten book by J. Jefferson Farjeon called Mystery in White about a group of people stuck on a snowbound train over Christmas. It was a runaway success, outselling popular paperback competition from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This has set editors and publishers diving back into the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, to unearth and retrieve stories, many of which have been out of print for almost a century.
However, you don’t necessarily have to look too far to find some classic Christmas crime solving. Many of the world’s most beloved detectives have had their opportunity to enjoy the season. Agatha Christie has given us Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, and similarly Georges Simenon has Maigret’s Christmas while Colin Dexter brings us on some New Year's celebrations in his Inspector Morse novel The Secret of Annex 3.
Aside from these famous names, we hope to recommend some more Christmas crime books to get you in the festive spirit. For this list we’re going to focus on British authors; as the imagery surrounding Christmas is often very Victorian and Dickensian, it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s something quintessential about the British landscape to the genre of Christmas crime fiction. With these stories you can expect plenty of country-house parties, snowy villages, and foggy London streets, the ideal fare of Christmas, as well as the usual Golden Age plots full of twists and turns, red herrings and surprising reveals. The following books, we hope, will both chill your spine and warm your heart.
Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith
As we noted earlier the British Library has been at the heart of publishing forgotten gems of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and for our first recommendation we’re looking to their most recent Christmas title, Portrait of a Murderer. This book was written by Anne Meredith, a
pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also famously wrote a crime fiction series, this time under the pen name Anthony Gilbert, about a rough and roguish lawyer named Arthur Crook. She was highly esteemed in her day, and part of the famous Detection Club along with G.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie. Sadly however much of her work was forgotten over the decades, but now the British Library has brought her back to our shelves with this gorgeous edition.
At first glance Portrait of a Murderer fits neatly into the tropes we described above. The snowy country house in this case is the lonely Kings Popular, inhabited by the detested Adrian Gray. His children, none of whom like him and several of them wish he was dead, arrive at the house for Christmas, but the next morning they find that Adrian has been killed. However here comes a break from what you might typically expect from this kind of murder mystery, as it is an inverted detective story, and the reader finds out who committed the crime fairly early on. However, Meredith continues to deliver a sense of mystery as we explore the psychology of a murderer and discover what really happened on that dark Christmas Eve, and what the murderer did next. Even knowing the killer, the story is riveting as we watch the whys and the hows unfold.
The Mistletoe Murders by P. D. James
Recognised as the ‘Queen of Crime’ across her 50-year career as an author, P.D. James produced many stories for newspapers and magazines that have hitherto remained uncollected. Faber have begun the task of collating them for publication, starting with The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, a collection of four short stories originally commissioned as Christmas specials. The first story, which lends its name to the collection, is told by a mystery character who recalls the murder of an insufferable guest. The second story, “A Very Commonplace Murder,” is not quite a detective story, but rather a sinister tale about a man who, while in a compromising position, witnesses something that would exonerate another man who has been charged with murder. We follow with bated breath as he toys with the consequences of this. The final two stories returns us to James’ famous lead character, her poet- detective Adam Dalgliesh. In the first of these two stories “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” we see a newly appointed Dalgliesh impressing his superiors with his remarkable deductive skills, while in the second story “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Dalgliesh looks into the suspicions surrounding the origin of his godfather’s newly bestowed inheritance.
As can be expected from James, her stories are filled with tantalizing puzzles, and for all their decorous restraint, these stories pack a punch. Throughout, James’ humour gives the stories a playful vivacity. This is certainly a more contemporary entry to a list generally populated by mid-twentieth century writers, but as any fan of James knows, there are plenty of Golden Age motifs and plotting to be found here, all inflected with James’ deep psychological understanding and deft creation of atmosphere.
Murder Under the Christmas Tree
Now we move to a compendium of short stories from various authors spread across the 20th and 21st century. The authors are mainly from the U.K. but there is also a story from American author Carter Dickson, and another story from New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh. All, however, are set against the backdrop of Christmas Time in Britain, whether it’s the bustling streets of Victorian London or the eeriness of an old house in Sussex. Murder Under the Christmas Tree is an excellent starting point for exploring Christmas Crime, as it gathers together the ‘creme de la creme’ of the genre. It is comprised of many highly recognised authors and characters, there’s Arthur Conan Doyle and his iconic Sherlock Holmes, along with Ian Rankin and his surly Inspector Rebus. These sleuths will take on a slew of different kinds of crimes, there are locked room mysteries, stolen treasures, anonymous letters with strange instructions, and as you might expect with such esteemed writers, the puzzles are intricate and the motives fascinating.
If you enjoy this collection, a second in the series has just been released this year, Murder on Christmas Eve, featuring many of the same writers.
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
An English Murder, written by Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of county judge Arthur Gordon Clarke, was originally published in 1951. As the book opens we find all the classic elements of a Christmas murder mystery. Warbeck Hall is decked out in all its Christmas regalia as the friends and family gather in the aristocratic country manor, for what is expected to be the last Christmas of the ailing Lord Warbeck. The snow starts falling thick and fast, and soon all the guests are snowed in, with no ability to contact the outside world. At the strike of midnight a murder occurs. Everyone, from the butler to the slighted lover to the Czech history professor, is under suspicion, that is if any of them make it out alive.
With all these classic tropes in place, what Hare does next is play with our expectations. His plotting keeps the reader guessing while his sly sense of humour makes the inclusion of so many classic elements borderline satirical. It’s a joy to read and many readers will also find it refreshing to read a book from that era where the portrayal of various social groups and people from a range of ethnicities stands up to modern scrutiny. The book’s rediscovery and republishing by Faber is certainly something to rejoice in this Christmas season.
In Murder Under the Christmas Tree we saw some of the most iconic authors’ Christmas short stories, but as we turn again to one of the British Library’s releases, we’re once again looking at some forgotten gems. Crimson Snow is a collection of 12 stories from authors across the UK, each with a wintry backdrop. This is not the first short story collection in the British Library’s Classic Crime Series, indeed it is not even their first Christmas collection (the first being Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries). The editor for these collections is author and current president of the Detection Club, Martin Edwards, whose knowledge of the Golden Age is truly breath-taking, and whose taste is utterly dependable. For this collection he has chosen a range of stories, some are forgotten stories of typically well-known authors, while with others both the story and the author had been lost to history.
The stories in this collection have plenty of elements we might expect; searching for tracks across the snow, suspicious Father Christmases, and festive parties. But there are also plenty of surprises, including S.C. Roberts’ play featuring the famous Sherlock Holmes, while a good number of the stories incorporate another Yuletide staple of yesteryear: Christmas Ghost stories.
A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer is best remembered for her Regency romance stories, but she also wrote a great number of crime novels as well, and among these is the festive story A Christmas Party.
An aristocratic party in a fancy manor is the ideal setting for both a Christmas crime novel, and a Georgette Heyer. Although Heyer is better remembered for her skill with conveying regency settings, this story, set in the 1930s, is still populated with all the kinds of characters that have made her so beloved: there are sneeringly sophisticated family members, clueless outsiders, and observant servants. All join together for a festive party thrown by a despised host. But when this host meets his untimely end, Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard must get to the bottom of this locked-room mystery, hampered by the fact that every one of the guests it seems has a secret to hide. This is a frothy and entertaining mystery with all of Heyer’s flair for glib dialogue and sparkling characterization. She was also renowned for her attention to historical detail which really helps to draw you into the manners and conventions of this aristocratic world, which for her was contemporary life, but for us now seems almost as remote as her regency fiction.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published in December 2017.