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Christmas 2022: A Christmas in mystery novels

Reading cosy murder mysteries set during the holidays is a no-brainer

Detective fiction writers have always set stories around the holiday season.
Detective fiction writers have always set stories around the holiday season. (iStock)

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In Agatha Christie’s novella The Adventure Of The Christmas Pudding, a minor work by the prolific queen of crime, Hercule Poirot is reluctantly dragged to a sprawling country manor in the depths of winter to experience a “real English Christmas” — with “all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers, the snowman outside the window”.

Christie's Christmas novella
Christie's Christmas novella

The mystery in this story is cliched and, indeed, cringe-inducingly Orientalist—an Indian prince gifts a priceless ruby ring to a girlfriend who then mysteriously disappears and is somehow connected to the country house in which the great detective is spending Christmas. It is, however, the perfect Christmas novel—lots of fun and games with an edge of darkness. Christie herself didn’t take it too seriously; in the foreword to the short story collection in which it first appeared in 1960, she writes, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is an indulgence of my own, since it recalls to me, very pleasurably, the Christmases of my youth.”

It is not the only Poirot novel set around the holidays — in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the detective is stuck in a very different kind of household, where a cantankerous old millionaire gathers his not-very-loving family together, introducing some strangers into the mix—a long-lost brother and niece, a son of an old friend, and Hercule Poirot. Of course, there is murder—and it’s one of the best locked room mysteries in crime fiction.

Reading about murder on Christmas doesn’t seem like a very wholesome thing to do, but what could be better than a cosy murder mystery for a cosy holiday?

Like special Christmas and Thanksgiving episodes on beloved TV shows, it seems writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, or even earlier, couldn’t resist setting stories around the holiday season—Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle, published in 1892, has Holmes and Watson going on a literal wild-goose chase as they follow in the footsteps of a man who lost a goose he was taking home for Christmas dinner.

In the 2015 short story collection Silent Nights: Christmas Stories, crime fiction writer Martin Edwards compiled several Golden Age stories set around Christmas, from Conan Doyle’s to stories by G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ethel Lina White to Marjorie Bowen and Edmund Crispin. But it’s not just Golden Age writers dabbling in Christmas conundrums—last year, I read the then just-published The Christmas Murder Game by Alexandra Benedict, a throwback to the classic country house mystery, with shades of the film Knives Out. Our heroine returns to her grand family home, where the matriarch is indulging a whim: The guests have to solve a 12-part riddle (for the 12 days of Christmas) to find clues—the winner will get the ultimate prize, inheriting her vast property.

This year, Benedict has written another holiday-themed murder novel, Murder On The Christmas Express, and it’s going to be my only gift to myself for the season.

Did you know Jane Austen was also a detective? Well, not really, though with her sharp, observant eye and zero illusions about humanity’s worst impulses, she would have made a fantastic one. In American writer Stephanie Barron’s endlessly inventive series, Austen is cast as herself, with the difference that not only is she a writer, she also steadily gains a reputation as someone who can solve complicated murder cases. In the 2014 Jane And the Twelve Days of Christmas, she is spending the Yuletide with her mother and sister at an ancient country manor (of course) when a young naval man is found dead of a broken neck.

In American writer Stephanie Barron’s series, Austen is cast as a detective
In American writer Stephanie Barron’s series, Austen is cast as a detective

In this series, the confined domestic world of Austen’s novels collides with grand happenings in the world, and this particular one too is full of intrigue and the shadow of international events as the Treaty of Ghent, signifying peace between Great Britain and the United States of America, that has just been signed.

There is something about crime fiction that makes it the perfect companion for rainy summer nights and chilly winter evenings—the constrast between one's safe and snug bed and the danger and intrigue on the page, perhaps, allowing you to feel grateful for the everyday boring-ness of your surroundings. So if your Christmas plans involve nothing more complicated than making hot toddy and watching the same old Christmas films, consider slipping between the covers of a cosy murder mystery instead.

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