Charles Warren Adams’ The Notting Hill Mystery is widely credited as the first detective novel, so it is fitting that it was chosen to launch the British Library Crime Classics series in 2012. The series chugged along nicely for the first couple of years, winning fans and converting readers to the joys of vintage crime fiction, but it was the decision to republish a Christmas murder mystery from the so-called Golden Age of Murder – J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White (1938) – that really propelled the series to the huge level of success that it now enjoys. In fact, so successful has the British Library’s republication project been, that other publishers have also begun reissuing classic crime stories from their back catalogues, retitling and rejacketing forgotten works in the hope of capturing the attention of contemporary crime readers. As Christmastime and vintage crime fiction have become so inextricably linked, it seems to offer the perfect opportunity to consider an alternative, certainly more murderous, approach to the Twelve Days of Christmas in which twelve classic crime stories are presented for your reading enjoyment:
- Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon
The book that arguably kick-started the craze for reprinting classic Christmas crime stories (if not classic crime stories in general), J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White was a massive hit over the 2014 festive season, selling over 60,000 copies and twice topping the Waterstone’s fiction bestseller charts, and it is every bit as good as it’s cracked up to be. On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a sudden stop, while the odd behaviour of one of the passengers results in a disparate group of travellers fleeing the train and taking shelter in an abandoned country house. Of course, once they have sufficiently warmed up to take charge of their wits, the group realises that the house can’t have been abandoned for long – a fire has been lit and the table is laid for tea. As they ponder setting out to look for the homeowners, a murderer strikes and the group discovers that they might have been better off out in the blizzard. Mystery in White is a classic crime caper with something of the paranormal thrown in for good measure, which might sound a little odd, but in fact the psychical investigative methods of Edward Maltby are perfectly suited to a tale of murder at Christmastime. The atmosphere of the house, which at first promised to be a refuge for the weary travellers, quickly becomes stifling and there’s even something going bump in the attic at night. The plot is perhaps more thriller than whodunit, but it’s still possible to have a good guess at who is spending their Christmas holiday out a-murdering people.
- A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer
It’s a case of murder most foul at Lexham Manor when the Christmas house party is interrupted by the miserly owner of the estate, Nathaniel Herriard, being found stabbed to death. For Inspector Hemingway, solving the crime is complicated as much by the surfeit of suspects as by the fact that the murder occurred within a locked room. Although Georgette Heyer is perhaps best known for her Regency romances, A Christmas Party (previously published as Envious Casca, but retitled to better reflect its festive subject matter) is an intricately plotted and extremely well-written mystery novel. Heyer utilises many of the stereotypes of the classic country house mystery, but she does so with her signature wit and flair for characterisation. The murder itself is seemingly impossible, since no one could have gotten to Herriard in order to stab him, and so solving it (or having the answer presented to you at the end of the book) is a real joy. Due to the subtle sprinkling of clues and the intriguing dialogue, A Christmas Party is just the sort of clever mystery to leave readers screaming “Of course!” when the killer is finally unmasked, and the “how” of the murder is particularly ingenious.
- Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan
Mordecai Tremaine, lover of romance magazines, amateur detective of some repute, and unobtrusive man-about-town, has accepted an invitation to spend Christmas at Sherbroome House, the country pile of one Benedict Grame. (Why do people keep accepting such invitations? Have they never read an Agatha Christie?) Tremaine does not know Grame well, they have met only once in fact, and so he would not have agreed to spend Christmas at Sherbroome where it not for the mysterious postscript included on the invitation by Nicholas Blaise, Benedict Grame’s private secretary. According to Blaise, something is very wrong at Sherbroome and Grame is likely to need the services of a good detective. Indeed, as Christmas Day dawns, a scream wakes the household and they soon discover that there is more than just presents under the tree … someone seems to have murdered Father Christmas. Murder for Christmas is a delightful festive murder mystery. In Mordecai Tremaine, Francis Duncan has created an engaging and sharp-eyed detective who seems just as keen as readers to find out exactly whodunit. Despite the many secrets and lies being shared among the suspects, his investigation is a sedate, hearteningly cordial affair. He wants to identify the murderer, but he certainly doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or to overstep the bounds of civility. For this reason, Murder for Christmas is a wonderfully cosy read and a great way to while away a winter’s evening. There are lots of twists and turns, as well as plenty of odd incidents to unpick, before the identity of the murderer is neatly revealed. Three other Mordecai Tremaine mysteries have since been republished by Vintage.
- The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay
The Santa Klaus Murder was actually republished as part of the British Library Crime Classics series before Mystery in White, but its original cover was neither eye-catching nor particularly appealing, so it wasn’t until it was re-republished with a much more festive cover that it started to gain readers in big numbers. Now, if there’s one thing that dedicated readers of cosy crime stories are all too well aware of, it’s that people would live longer if they’d only listen to their elderly relatives. In the case of The Santa Klaus Murder, the wise oldster in question is Aunt Mildred, who just knows that something dreadful will happen if the whole Melbury family get together for Christmas. Of course, the rest of the family ignore her and so it’s really their own fault that their Christmas Day is ruined when one of the guests, who happens to be dressed as Santa Klaus, finds Sir Osmond Melbury shot to death. The principal investigator in The Santa Klaus Mystery is Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, but he is ably assisted by actor/amateur sleuth Kenneth Stour and the first-person accounts of various people who were present in the run up to/during the murder. Including the perspectives of different characters is a nice touch and it helps the reader to establish a timeline for the murder, although it’s far from certain whose account can actually be trusted.
- Murder in the Snow by Gladys Mitchell
The twenty-third book in the Mrs Bradley mystery series, Murder in the Snow was originally titled Groaning Spinney, although it was retitled, rejacketed in a more festive fashion, given the subtitle “A Cotswold Christmas Mystery” and specifically marketed towards “fans of Mystery in White and Murder Under the Christmas Tree” following the classic Christmas crime renaissance. In this outing, Mrs Bradley, eminent psychoanalyst and all-round super sleuth, is spending Christmas in the Cotswolds with her nephew and his wife. Her attention is soon drawn to a local legend concerning the ghost of a country parson who is said to haunt the gateway leading to a copse of tress known as the Groaning Spinney. There’s to be no relaxing break (haunted or otherwise) for her, however, as the community is soon flooded with poison pen letters. Things escalate quickly and, when a local man in found murdered in the spot where the ghost is said to walk, Mrs Bradley makes sure to insert herself into the investigation. It might not be the most Christmassy of Christmas crime stories, but Murder in the Snow clearly demonstrates why Gladys Mitchell is considered to rank with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers as among the finest of the Golden Age mystery writers.
- An English Murder by Cyril Hare
An English Murder, which began life as a radio play titled Murder at Warbeck Hall, is another fine example of a country house murder mystery. The setting is an isolated manor house that is more cut off from the outside world than normal during the fateful Christmas period, since an unusually high amount of snow had fallen and the phone line is down. The house is the ancestral home of the Warbeck family, with the current inhabitants being the terminally ill Lord Warbeck, his fascist son, his politician cousin (and wife) and the former lover of said fascist son. Also present are the delightfully named Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink, a Jewish historian who is researching the house, Briggs, the ubiquitous butler, and a covert protection officer charged with keeping the politician safe. Suffice it to say, they are not a merry and harmonious bunch, and that’s before the murder happens. Despite his skilled plotting and exceptional characterisation, Cyril Hare’s writing hasn’t quite enjoyed the resurgence experienced by authors published in the British Library Crime Classics series, for example, although a few of other books have also been republished. The cover will likely draw readers to An English Murder, but they should stick with Hare’s work due to the quality of his writing.
- Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin
Stockbroker and occasional sleuth Malcolm Warren (who featured in a total of four murder mysteries by C.H.B. Kitchin) is obliged to spend Christmas at the family home of a wealthy client, Alex Quisberg. The house party begins as a reasonably jolly affair since, although Quisberg and his secretary Harley have to leave unexpectedly to visit a business rival, Warren is entertained by Mrs Quisberg, her son from her first marriage, her two daughters from her second marriage, Mrs Harley (the secretary’s mother) and several other guests. Numerous servants, an invalid son and his nurse are also present in the house. The festive spirit is soon soured though, as Warren awakes to find Mrs Harley dead on his balcony, the victim of an apparent sleepwalking accident. That’s enough to put anyone off their turkey, but when a second body turns up, Warren has no choice other than to spend his Christmas break playing detective. Malcolm Warren is very much a gentleman detective of the old school; he wants to catch the murderer, but he wants to avoid any unnecessary unpleasantness or damage to people’s reputations (he would get on well with Mortdecai Tremaine in that respect). He’s also a bit of a snob, albeit an amusing one, whose skill at detection owes more to a fortunate memory than to any great insight into human nature. Really, Warren does very well not to become the prime suspect, since he ends up alone with not one but two dead bodies. Getting to the heart of the murder (or should that be murders?) is certainly entertaining though. The final dialogue between writer and reader might prove a bit polarizing, but it does provide an interesting insight into Kitchin’s thought (and plotting) process.
- Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown
Jill McGown’s Murder at the Old Vicarage is a particularly interesting example of a republished crime novel. First, because it’s not actually a particularly old book (it was originally published in 1988 as Redemption) and, second, because McGown deliberately set out to write a tribute to the work of Agatha Christie, which makes it a Golden Age novel from outside the Golden Age. Still, no doubt due to its vintage tone and content, it was recently republished with a cover in keeping with other example of classic Christmas crime. At its heart, Murder at the Old Vicarage is an old-fashioned, character-driven crime novel that can still be counted as cosy. The death of his abusive, alcoholic son-in-law means that difficulty writing a suitably profound sermon and the presence of an attractive new parishioner aren’t the only things dampening George Wheeler’s Christmas spirit. As the police spend the early hours of Christmas morning searching the house and taking statements, George has to contend with the fact that he, his wife and their daughter are the most likely suspects to have battered Graham Elstow to death with a fire poker in the back bedroom of the Old Vicarage. For his part, Chief Inspector Lloyd is hoping for an open-and-shut case and the chance to resume his affair with Sergeant Judy Hill. It seems that both men are destined to have a Christmas to remember. Despite being an homage to Murder at the Vicarage, McGown’s characters get up to rather more sordid activities than any to grace the pages of the Queen of Crime’s works. Given his extremely unpleasant nature, there is no shortage of suspects in the murder of Graham Elstow, and Chief Inspector Lloyd’s investigation isn’t helped by the fact that the numerous suspects all suspect each other and so all do their best to muddy the proverbial waters. Fortunately for readers, this adds up to plenty of shaky alibis and red herrings to mull over.
- Silent Nights edited by Martin Edwards
In addition to republishing forgotten crime novels, the British Library Crime Classics series has also done its bit to reignite interest in the short story form. With that in mind, Silent Nights is a short story collection edited by Martin Edwards that aims to introduce a new generation of readers to “some of the finest detective story writers of the past”. The collection includes Christmas-themed crime stories from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edmund Crispin, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. While many of the included stories (or at least the detectives they feature) will be familiar to crime buffs, Edwards has also included a few stories that are likely new to even diehard mystery fans. Hence, Silent Nights is the first anthology to include “Beef for Christmas” by Leo Bruce and “Parlour Tricks” by Ralph Plummer. Whether famous or less well known, the stories that comprise Silent Nights offer something for everyone who enjoys their festive feast with a side of murder. Some of the stories are rather sentimental, some are more light-hearted, but all of them offer a delicious insight into the murder and mayhem of Christmases past.
- Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan
Despite being an intricately plotted country house mystery of the kind so popular during the Golden Age of Murder, Another Little Christmas Murder (originally titled Another Little Murder) had been out of print for nearly seventy years when Sphere decided to reissue it with the aim of appealing to fans of Murder at the Old Vicarage and Partners in Crime. Commercial traveller Dilys Hughes (the mouthpiece of Compton, Webber and Hughes – manufacturers of ointments, rubbing oils and everything needed to cure rheumatism) is stranded on the edge of a precipice in darkest Yorkshire one snowy winter’s night. Fortunately, Inigo Brown is passing by on his way to visit his estranged uncle and, since the weather is looking decidedly grim, Dilys agrees to accompany him to Wintry Wold, his uncle’s remote country house, for the night. Once there, they are greeted by Inigo’s new young aunt Theresa, a drunken family friend and two surly servants. As the snow continues to fall, more and more stranded travellers arrive on the doorstep, but are any of them involved in the sudden death of Inigo’s uncle? It’s all very odd and there’s certainly more than one mystery afoot at Wintry Wold. Equally mysterious is the life of its author, since surprisingly little is now known about Lorna Nicholl Morgan.
- A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories by Georges Simenon
Although Penguin has been republishing the Maigret novels at a rate of about one per month for a number of years now, this special festive collection from 2017 still deserves a mention, since it shows that even a hugely popular series can benefit from a Christmas tie in. A Maigret Christmas is a collection of three stories chronicling the investigative exploits of France’s greatest detective during the festive season (or seasons, to be more accurate). As ever, Maigret is a formidable detective and any criminals who attempt to deceive him are to be pitied. The title story, A Maigret Christmas, is arguably the best in the collection. In it, Maigret’s Christmas Day with his (long-suffering) wife is interrupted by a neighbour who suspects that there is more to a child’s claim of seeing Santa Claus during the night than meets the eye. Maigret finds himself embroiled in a years-old murder case and he is forced to spend his holiday sifting through secrets and lies in an effort to uncover the truth. In the second story, Seven Crosses in a Notebook, one of Maigret’s colleagues must follow events from affair when it appears that his relative might have been involved in a deadly crime spree. Maigret puts in only a brief (and, in fact, anonymous) appearance, but the story itself is solid and the mystery unravels nicely. In the third and final story, The Little Restaurant in Les Ternes, a suicide provokes an act of unexpected human kindness in perhaps the most unlikely of settings. It is a rather sedate story in which not much really happens, but like all of Georges Simenon’s work, it is an excellent character study.
- Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith
What better way to round off this selection of classic crime stories than with Portrait of a Murderer, which is noteworthy for being a country house mystery of the Golden Age that was also a forerunner of the kind of psychological crime novel more popular today. It begins with the exquisite opening statement that “Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931” and it goes on to be arguably the most innovative of the books included in this feature. Adrian Gray is in the habit of inviting his family to stay with him at Kings Poplars every December and they, despite pretty much universally abhorring him, are in the habit of accepting his invitation. As the family gather together on Christmas Eve, more than one of them has cause to wish Gray dead, and by Christmas morning, that wish has come true. Portrait of a Murderer is interesting because readers discover the identity of the killer fairly early on in the story and, although a detective is tasked with solving Gray’s murder, the real focus of the book is the psychology of the killer and the impact that the murder has on all of the characters involved. It stands out among the other classic crime novels featured due to principally considering the crime from the other side, that is, by portraying the killer as a real person and examining what happened after the murder rather than laying out clues to be solved.
Happily, there are a number of new classic seasonal crime stories being republished in time for the 2018 festive season, so if you’re on the lookout for some more mysterious Christmas capers, then you might like to check out: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories, a collection of short stories that explores the darker side of the season of goodwill, edited by Martin Edwards; Spirits of the Season, a collection of Christmas hauntings that should suit mystery buffs who are made of sterner stuff, edited by Tanya Kirk; and A Very Murderous Christmas, ten tales of festive mayhem from the likes of Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton and Nicholas Blake.