It’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.