It’s that time of year when lots of people go to holiday parties; perhaps you’ve been to a few of them yourself. What you may not be aware of, though, is just how dangerous holiday parties can really be. You don’t believe me? Just take a look at what happens at holiday parties in crime fiction – not a pretty sight!
For example, in Agatha Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (AKA The Theft of the Royal Ruby), Hercule Poirot gets an unusual request. A Middle Eastern prince has been swindled out of a very valuable ruby he’d intended to give to his fiancée. If the theft is made public, it will embarrass that royal family and create a scandal, so the search for it must be kept confidential. Poirot is told that the ruby could possibly have been traced to Kings Lacey, an English country home owned by the Lacey family. So under the pretext of experiencing an old-fashioned English Christmas, complete with plum pudding, Poirot agrees to go. He settles into the house and soon gets to meet the various members of the family, although he’s not yet found the ruby. Then on Christmas Day, the family indulges in a full-scale Christmas feast. At the end of it, when the plum pudding’s served, everyone jokes about who gets the various symbols hidden in the traditional Christmas pudding. Colonel Lacey nearly chokes on his portion and discovers that it contains a very unusual “surprise.” That night, Poirot’s room is raided by someone who’s obviously on the same quest as he is. In the end, Poirot figures out what happened to the pudding, who raided his room and how the Lacey family is connected with the theft of the ruby.
In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen visits the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet for writing. For that purpose, he’s staying at a guest house owned by John F. and Hermione “Hermy” Wright, the town’s social leaders. Against his better judgement, Queen gets involved in the Wright family drama. The Wright’s oldest daughter Lola has been the subject of lots of town gossip since she got divorced (a scandal at the time this book was written). Their youngest daughter Nora had been engaged to marry an up-and-coming banker named Jim Haight, but he left town abruptly three years earlier, just before their wedding was scheduled. When Haight suddenly returns, everyone’s upset to see him and Nora rekindling their relationship. Against a lot of people’s wishes, the two marry and settle in together although there are hints that Haight may be planning to kill his wife for her fortune. On Christmas, Nora is taken ill, and her third sister Patricia “Pat” wonders whether Haight may responsible. Then, Jim Haight’s obnoxious sister Rosemary comes to town. She’s with the family on New Year’s Eve when cocktails and drinks are being handed round. When she suddenly dies of turns out to be poisoning, everyone is convinced that the cocktail she drank was intended for Nora, and that Haight is responsible for the murder. Soon the whole town is against Haight, and only Queen and Pat Wright believe he might not be guilty. It takes all of Queen’s skill to clear Haight’s name and find out who the killer is.
In Carole Nelson Douglas’ Cat in a Golden Garland, Las Vegas public relations freelancer Temple Barr and her cat Midnight Louie get a chance for a trip to New York, when the ad agency of Colby, Janos and Rinaldi becomes interested in Midnight Louie’s potential as a “spokescat.” They’re invited to the company’s Christmas party where Brent Colby, Jr. is planning to dress as Santa Claus, as he’s done for years. Without telling anyone, though, Colby hires Rudy Lasko, a part-time department-store Santa, to substitute for him during part of the festivities. When Lasko is killed, everyone thinks at first that Colby was the intended victim, since no-one knew that Lasko was taking his place. And there are plenty of suspects, too. But then, the more that Barr and Midnight Louie find out about Lasko, the more possible it seems that he might have been the intended victim all along. Certainly this office Christmas party doesn’t end as planned!
Neither does the office Christmas party in James Patrick Hunt’s Goodbye Sister Disco. In that novel, we meet Tom Myers, an up-and-coming lawyer in an upmarket St. Louis law firm. He and his girlfriend, heiress Cordelia Penworthy, are attending the firm’s annual Christmas party at the home of Sam Fisher, one of the senior partners. The evening ends disastrously when Myers is killed outside the home and Penworthy is kidnapped. FBI agent Lieutenant George Hastings is assigned to the case. At first, it seems that the kidnapping and murder might have something to do with politics, but the more Hastings learns about the Penworthy family (and the law firm), the clearer it is that more is going on than political terrorism.
In Dean James’ Closer Than the Bones, we get a look at a slightly different kind of Christmas party. Famous Southern author Mary Tucker McElroy hosts a Christmas literary getaway for several up-and-coming protégés whose work she feels deserves support. Tragically, one guest, Sukey Lutton, is found dead in a pond on McElroy’s property. At first it seems that she might have committed suicide. But McElroy believes that Lutton was murdered. Six months later, she visits retired English teacher Ernestine “Ernie” Carpenter, who has a reputation for solving mysteries, and asks her to find out the truth about Sukey Lutton’s death. Carpenter agrees and begins to look into the lives of Sukey Lutton and the other people who were staying at the house at the time of her death. It turns out that Lutton’s death is related to the entangled relationships among the writers in this group.
A village Christmas party ends up in murder in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas. In that story, a mysterious writer named Toffee Brown moves to the small village of Knavesborough. She’s a little eccentric, but no-one really pays much attention to her. Then, she gets the chance to make an impression when the local celebrity, world-class violinist Sir Bellini, invites her to join the other locals at a Christmas party. Although she considers herself above them, Toffee Brown accepts the invitation chiefly because she wants to meet Sir Bellini. While she’s at the party, Toffee commits a faux pas that ends up in her murder. When vicar’s daughters Psalmanella and Rhapsody Gershwin discover her body the next day, Rhapsody works with her fiancé Constable Archibald Primrose to find out who killed Toffee Brown and why.
And that just goes to show you how dangerous holiday parties can be. So if you go to a festive party, be careful about that eggnog. Stand where you can see everyone. Watch what you eat. You never know….
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Paxton’s The Party .