Christmas Reads 2018

With the New Year fast approaching, Christmas season is nearly past as well. I didn’t expect this year that I would complete any seasonal reading (too many in-progress  books already), but then my mom told me about a P.D. James short story collection, and I found that some Christmas-set reading was only my to-do list. One thing leads to another, and soon an Agatha Christie was on hold at the library as well

I’m not sure that one should really call any of James’s or Christie’s stories “seasonal” – peace, love, goodwill to all men with a side of murder just doesn’t seem very Christmas-spirit. But on the other hand, both Christie and James knew that the holidays can bring with them stress and strife, as the obligations of the season often bring together estranged family members who otherwise might conveniently forget each other’s existence. Perhaps one might say the Christmas season is actually ripe for murder?

Cover: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
P.D. James
2016, England (collection of previously published stories)

“The Mistletoe Murder”

Set during World War II, a young war widow is invited to her grandmother’s estate for the Christmas Holidays, along with a couple other  relations. But the seemingly peaceful gathering is shattered when a distant cousin is found bludgeoned to death and our young heroine feels the need to solve his murder. This felt to me rather of the Golden Age of detective fiction, though perhaps more graphic or at least more serious. In fact, it made me nostalgic for Christie (thus my second seasonal read). I was not surprised by the “who” though I was so caught up in the narrative that I’d forgotten my suspicions until all was revealed. It was my favorite of the short collection.

“A Very Commonplace Murder”

A first person narrative, told by the witness to a crime, who at each phase of the investigation confirms to himself his reasons why he shouldn’t come forward…yet. The title is both apt–and not quite. I found this little tale tawdry and out of step with the others.

“The Boxdale Inheritance”

The first Adam Dalgliesh story I’ve read. (Really, I should read some full-length PD James!) Interestingly, the actual mystery is from the past, over 60 years, as Dalgliesh is asked by a friend to investigate his uncle’s murder; Dalgliesh’s friend doesn’t fell comfortable accepting an inheritance form  his late aunt if she were really the guilty party.  Although a short story, it plays with both murder and ethical concepts.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas”

Much like the first story, this tale seemed also to have something of Christie about it – which Dalgliesh himself notes: a country house full of family only arrived for the holidays, an unexpected death, and so many clues. Twelve, to be exact. While the mystery is no match for Dalgliesh, the story and setting bring a comfortable whiff of Golden Age detective nostalgia with them (and perhaps the question – do the British really have so many family homes in which to set murders?!).

Overall, I found the stories an enjoyable afternoon diversion, but left me wanting more…

Cover: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Chrismtas
Agatha Christie
1938, England

My immediate solution to the need for more Christmas-timed murder and mayhem was to turn to the queen of the Golden Age. A quick search turned up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also known as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder). It is yet another tale of long estranged family gathering at home for Christmas, summoned by the patriarch, Simeon Lee, ostensibly to reconcile for one last family Christmas. However, Simeon is an unrepentant scoundrel, more interested in setting his sons and daughters-in-law at each other’s throats than in familial bonding. Throw in a Spanish granddaughter, a son of Simeon’s former partner from his South African diamond mining days, and a sneaky valet and it is a combustible mix, with nothing good bound to happen. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot happens to be staying nearby for the holidays, so justice is bound to be served.

The mystery is solid, and the clues and personalities laid carefully, so that while I often saw the significance of Poirot’s line of investigation, I didn’t actually work out the “who” in advance of the big reveal. Which is how I prefer my mysteries: tantalizingly close to figuring it out, but not so close that the ending is a let down. On the whole, a mostly satisfying read. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing a bit with Simeon’s granddaughter Pilar: it wasn’t quite an English Christmas. Perhaps “Hercule Poirot’s Boxing Day” would have been better?