Turn the Choral Music Higher, Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

Preparing For GatheringsIt’s the time of year when people make plans for office parties, family gatherings and holiday travel. There are often all sorts of preparations to be made for everything from clothing to cleaning to food and travel tickets. And that’s to say nothing of gifts (but that’s for another post). It all can add up to an awful lot of stress. Part of the reason for that is arguably that people often picture an ‘ideal, perfect holiday’ as they plan, and hold themselves to that ideal. And of course, all sorts of disasters can happen, and people want to avoid them.

Certainly the stress of those preparations is a fact of real life, and of course, it’s there in crime fiction, too. That sort of stress is seldom the reason for a murder, but it does ratchet up the pace and sometimes the suspense. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), wealthy family patriarch Simeon Lee decides to invite the members of his family to Gorston Hall for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he is very wealthy, so no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee’s son Alfred and Alfred’s wife Lydia share the home, so most of the preparations fall on them. And it’s not going to be pleasant, either. For one thing, Alfred finds out that his brother Harry, whom he’s disliked for years, will be there. So will his niece Pilar, whom he’s never met. For another, there will be extra bedrooms, more food and so on that will need to be planned. None of the other family members are any more keen to prepare for this holiday, but everyone duly gathers. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he agrees to work with the local police to investigate. As it turns out, the murder has everything to do with a past that came back to haunt the victim (I know, I know, fans of The Hollow…)

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel begins just before Christmas. The Mendel Gallery is planning an exhibition of the artwork of Sally Love. As it happens, she was a friend of academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so Kilbourn decides to go to the gallery and see the exhibit. She’d like if possible to see if the friendship could be renewed. But that doesn’t work out as planned; in fact, it’s awkward. Then, when gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, Sally becomes a likely suspect. Then, there’s another murder. Kilbourn has to juggle getting involved in the murders with final preparations for Christmas and for a week of skiing that she’d planned for herself and her children. And the lead-up to the holiday is a little frantic. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a scene featuring Kilbourn’s daughter Mieka, who’s come home from university for the holidays:

‘…my daughter Mieka was sitting at the dining-room table behind piles of boxes and wrapping paper and ribbons…
‘Help,’ she said. ‘I’m three days behind in my everything.’
I sat down beside her and picked up a box. ‘For whom? From whom?’ I asked.
‘For you. From me. No peeking. Now choose some nice motherly paper. Something sedate.”

There’s nothing like the glittery clutter and frantic pace of gift-wrapping…

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. Guest is married and firmly ‘in the closet,’ but he has had some trysts with men. And someone’s found out about it. Quant agrees to see what he can do, although he thinks it would be more logical for his client to simply come out as gay. This Guest refuses to do, so Quant gets to work on the case. The search for the truth takes Quant to New York, where he finds out some surprising truths. When he returns, there’s a murder. And an attempt on his own life. Meanwhile, Quant’s mother Kay has come to stay for the Christmas holidays. He loves his mother, but it’s awkward living at close quarters with her now that he’s an adult. But Kay does come in handy as Quant gets ready for his annual Christmas come ‘n’ go. He’s not really a particularly high-strung person, as the saying goes, but he does want things to look nice and turn out well. And with Kay’s help, they do.

There’s a lot at stake in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. The Cooking Channel’s Rebecca Adrian has come to Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win the coveted Best Barbecue award. The award will mean lots of recognition and more business for the winning restaurant, so everyone at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue is eager to show the place off to best effect. Aunt Pat’s has been in Lulu Taylor’s family for generations, and as current owner, she oversees everything that goes on there. When Adrian arrives, Taylor’s as anxious as anyone else for the visit to go well:

Got to be the Cooking Channel scout,’ Lulu hissed. She scurried to the mirror. ‘I knew I should have worn my power suit today!”

She and her family members do their best to make their guest welcome, and she’s confident that the food will be delicious. But only a few hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Then the gossip starts to spread that the victim was killed by the food at Aunt Pat’s. Taylor wants to salvage the restaurant’s reputation and keep the business going, so she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that more than one person had a good reason to want Rebecca Adrian dead.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool begins on New Year’s Eve. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her partner Marc Amos are planning to go to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of successful attorney Stuart Wagg. It’s more upmarket than Scarlett likes, but she’s persuaded to go. She doesn’t lack confidence in herself most of the time, but there is of course the question of what to wear:

‘…her mind drifted back to the wardrobe challenge. Leather trousers were a safe bet. They were the colour of chocolate fudge cake – if she daren’t eat it, at least she could wear something that reminded her of it. That halter neck top with copper sequins, maybe, plus the brown boots for tramping outside to watch the firework display.’

The two go to the party and at first Scarlett’s pleased with her clothing choice, even getting compliments. But then then things go downhill. First, there’s a loud argument and one of the guests, after too much to drink, throws a glass of red wine at another and storms out. Not many days later, the host is murdered. Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team are already looking into a six-year-old murder, and they find that this recent one (and another killing as well) is connected.

As crime fiction shows us, it doesn’t matter how frantically and carefully we prepare for gatherings. Anything can happen, and sometimes does…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right On Time.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams

23 responses to “Turn the Choral Music Higher, Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

  1. I just did my first round of Christmas-related shopping today (well,1st Advent Sunday is coming up next week), so this is very seasonal. I think there is a Flavia de Luce novel set at or around Christmas, that’s my only small contribution.

    • Marina Sofia – I respect your ability to get things in order so quickly in the season! And you have a good memory; I Am Half-Sick of Shadows does indeed take place at Christmas. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. Last Christmas I was delighted to be reminded of Hilda Lawrence’s Blood Upon the Snow – a real seasonal mystery story, with assorted people gathering at a mysterious dark house. No-one has a clue what’s going on, but you can bet it’s not good. There is also a snowman of death. Highly recommended!

    • Moira – I even like the title of that one! I’d heard that it was good, but still haven’t (yet) read it (shame, shame on me!). It does sound great, and certainly has a theme of suspense as everyone gathers…

  3. I liked Elizabeth Spann Craig’s novel a lot. It was humourous too. Also, Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool was exciting too. Great post.

    • Thanks, Clarissa! I think Edwards’ Lake District series is fantastic and doesn’t get nearly enough press. And the Adams/Spann Craig series is terrific, too. She’s got a great touch with the cosy mystery sub-genre.

  4. Some great suggestions for holiday reading. I finished Ann Granger’s A Season for Murder recently and will review soon. Murder around Christmas always puts the damper on festivities.

  5. There are so many classics set around the holidays, it’s hard to pick just one or two. Let me make two suggestions. First, there’s Georgette Heyer’s marvelous Envious Casca, in which a Christmas party is assembled at the home of a wealthy and irascible man (who doesn’t much care for Christmas parties). It’s no surprise when said wealthy and irascible man winds up stabbed in the back…inside a locked room.

    And then there’s Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel, set at a most unusual holiday gathering. The servants at Halberds Manor are certified ex-murderers…and it appears that the “ex” part of the description may be improperly applied, as there is murder at the manor in the course of a Christmas party.

    Holiday murders can be fun indeed…

    • Les – Thanks very much for your ideas. You’re absolutely right on both counts. Interesting that they were different sorts of writers, with different takes on creating mysteries and developing characters. Yet both add nice dose of wit to their stories.

  6. Poor old Clover Moon in Gillian White’s ‘The Sleeper’ had real problems with her Christmas preparations – isolated snowbound farm, interfering mother-in-law, flooding, dead body in the basement and someone trying to kill her… still at least she’d got her presents wrapped in time… 😉

  7. I was too late to put an original comment so I’ll content myself with seconding FictionFan’s choice The Sleeper that I read last year. This book tops the normal Christmas disasters! Great post which reminded me that I must read some of Martin Edwards mystery books.

    • Cleo – Oh, now I definitely need to try The Sleeper with both you and FictionFan endorsing it. And I really do recommend the Lake District mysteries. They’re quite well-written and with good characters.

  8. Col

    I can’t recall anything I have read with Christmas as the back-drop to the mystery. Must have been something surely…….off to rack the brain some more!

    • Col – I think it’s impossible to remember everything one’s read. If you do think of stories where the backdrop is the kind of frantic preparation one does for a gathering, I’d love to know about ’em.

  9. For some reason several posts that I’m following, including yours, aren’t showing in my reader. If I can’t fix this I might have to re-follow you. I just didn’t want you to think I wasn’t interested. Your posts are always of interest to me, Margot!

  10. Thanks for mentioning my books so positively, Margot. On the subject of Hilda Lawrence, I’d echo Moira’s praise. I’ve enjoyed everything by Lawrence that I’ve read.

  11. Once again a Chandler example from me: in the film version of Lady in the Lake it all takes place at or around Christmas, which lends a nice cozy counterpoint to the edgy story. I’ve not read the novel, so I can’t say whether the Christmas backdrop is in the original as well …

    • Bryan – That film is a great example. As I recall (and I may be wrong), the novel doesn’t take place at Christmas. But you’re right that that extra touch adds an interesting counterpoint to the film.

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