Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime*

Christmas PreparationAt this time of year, people often make plans to spend the holidays with family or with friends. Some take getaway holidays. Either way, it can mean a lot of planning, travel hassles and so on. And that’s to say nothing of the gift buying that’s usually involved. If all of that leaves you stressed, it might be a comfort to know that some people spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in some very unusual (and sometimes quite dangerous) situations. At least they do in crime fiction.

Consider Agatha Troy, who spends a very unusual Christmas in Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel. She’s been commissioned by Hilary Bill-Tasman to paint his portrait, and agrees to spend Christmas at his home, Halbards, to complete the task. Since her husband, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is out of the country on a case, the timing works out perfectly. Troy soon finds, though, that this is a very unusual place. For one thing, Bill-Tasman believes firmly in the redemptive power of work and purpose. So he only hires former inmates; in fact, each of his employees has been convicted of murder. Still, Troy gets started on the portrait. Then, Bill-Tasman’s uncle, Fleaton ‘Uncle Flea’ Forrester and his wife arrive for Christmas, along with Uncle Flea’s longtime servant Alfred Moult. The plan is for Uncle Flea to dress up as a Druid (instead of the more conventional Father Christmas) to give out presents to the local children at a large party to be held at the house. On the day of the party, though, Uncle Flea is not well, so Moult takes his place. After he passes out the gifts, Moult disappears, and is later found dead. And it turns out that more than one person had a very good motive for murder.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, LAPD police detective Harry Bosch is ‘on call’ on Christmas Day, and spending the day at home. It’s ordinary enough to stay home at Christmas, but everything changes when Bosch hears news over the police scanner of a body found at a cheap motel. He’s surprised that no-one notified him, since he’s on call. He’s also surprised that one of the high-ranking department members has gone out to investigate. Bosch goes to the scene, only to find that the dead man is a fellow police officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. The official account of the death is that Moore was a ‘dirty’ copper who committed suicide. But there are hints that this was not a suicide, so Bosch decides to ask some questions. He’s immediately shunted to another set of unsolved cases that he’s tasked with closing before the end of the year. But of course, anyone who knows Harry Bosch will know that he doesn’t give up that easily…

Liza Marklund’s The Bomber begins a week before Christmas, when a major explosion rocks Stockholm. The city’s been chosen to host the next Olympic Games, and to everyone’s dismay, the bomb went off in Victoria Stadium, in Olympic Village. Annika Bengtzon, crime editor for Kvällspressen, goes to the scene only to learn that there’s been a death. Christine Farhage, one of Stockholm’s business and civic leaders, was in the building at the time of the explosion. There’s talk that this might have been an act of terrorism. But there are other possibilities, too. There’s soon evidence that this might have been an ‘inside job’ committed by someone connected with the upcoming events. So Bengtzon and her staff have a lot of ground to cover as they investigate. And the trail leads to a very unusual and dangerous place for Bengtzon to spend Christmas Eve.

Nicci French’s Blue Monday begins in late November, but people are already getting into ‘holiday mode.’ And that’s just what London psychotherapist Frieda Klein hates most:

‘She loathed Christmas, and she loathed the run-up to Christmas, the frenzied shoppers, the tat in the shops, the lights that were put up too early in the streets, the Christmas songs that belted out of shops day after day…’

Soon enough, Frieda’s got much more to think about than her dislike of Christmas. Four-year-old Matthew Faraday has gone missing, and police efforts haven’t turned up any leads. Then, Frieda begins to get a very uncomfortable feeling about one of her patients, Alan Dekker. Some of the things that he tells her suggest that her work with Dekker may be in some way connected to Matthew’s disappearance. One of the issues she has to face is how much to tell DCI Malcolm Karlsson, who’s investigating the case. What’s the role of patient/therapist privacy? And how useful is what she could tell, anyway? Each in a different way, she and the police follow up on this investigation. In the end, they find out what happened to Matthew, and how it connects with another disappearance twenty-two years earlier. Through all of this, and mostly because of her feelings about Christmas, Frieda hasn’t done anything to prepare. Still, she allows herself to be talked into having her sister Olivia and niece Chlöe visit. Through a series of plot events, she actually ends up having a group of people at her house for Christmas. One of them even says,

‘‘What a collection of left-behinds and misfits we are.’’

It’s a very odd and unusual Christmas for Frieda, especially given she doesn’t celebrate the holiday. But as she herself says,

‘‘We could do worse.’’

And they could.

Just ask Anthondy Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. In Flight of Aquavit, Quant has a new client, Daniel Guest, who’s being blackmailed. Guest is a ‘respectably married’ successful accountant, who has also had some secret trysts with men. Rather than coming out, as Quant thinks he should, Guest is desperate to have the blackmailer found and stopped. In the course of that investigation, Quant finds himself looking into a case of murder as well, and ends up in an extremely dangerous predicament with his friend Jared Lowe. The two are stranded outside just before Christmas Eve – a life-threatening situation in Saskatchewan. They manage to find shelter just in time, but they are still trapped, with no way home. It’s an very unusual Christmas Eve for them.

So next time you’re feeling stressed because of house guests, gifts, travel, or the myriad other things that can ‘pile on’ at this time of the year, keep one thing in mind. It really could be a lot worse…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Liza Marklund, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Nicci French

20 responses to “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime*

  1. Should it worry anyone that you’re thinking about murder and Christmas at the same time? 😉

    In Gillian White’s The Sleeper, poor Clover Moon is having a bad enough time with her extremely disapproving mother-in-law visiting, but things get worse when there’s a flood. Especially since it causes a corpse to float into the cellar…

    • 😆 It’s an occupational hazard, FictionFan. People who write crime fiction tend to think about murder no matter what the time of year…

      Thanks for mentioning The Sleeper, too. It’s exactly what I had in mind with this post. A very unusual way to spend the holiday, indeed.

  2. Icewineanne

    Another mystery that takes place just before Christmas is Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. Although it’s not a “Christmasy mystery”, they do solve the case just before Christmas Eve 😊

  3. Some great examples here Margot.

  4. Margot: In Dead Cold by Louise Penny there is an outdoor curling game at Christmas. The game proves deadly for C.C. de Poitiers at the moment of a great curling takeout shot.

    • That’s an absolutely terrific example, Bill. Thanks for bringing it up. And Penny does, I think, a great job of contrasting that with the warm and friendly Christmas that people are ‘supposed to’ be having

  5. I do like your selection of festive murders! It is well known that as well as being a time of good cheer, it also brings out the worst in people.. Good that you gave Nicci French’s Blue Monday a shout out!

    • Thanks, Cleo. And you’re absolutely right; this time of year can definitely bring out both the best and the worst in people. And I think the ‘Nicci French’ duo does a great job of setting Blue Monday against the context of what’s supposed to be a lovely Christmas season.

  6. Col

    I’ve read the Connelly, but would not have remembered the timing of the story. Scratching my head I can’t recall any Christmas mysteries and murders that I’ve crossed paths with…

    • That’s one of the things, I think, about Connelly’s writing, Col. He keeps the focus so much on the story and characters, and doesn’t focus as much on those smaller (well, less relevant to the story) details.

  7. Margot, it’d be a good idea for me to read “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” which, I think, you have featured here. You offer some great examples some of which I need to read.

    • I think it’s a really interesting mystery, Prashant, with Christie’s trademark skill at leading readers up the proverbial garden path, but at the same time ‘playing fair.’

  8. Good point! After reading those examples, I’m now extra grateful that we’ll be staying home and not having company this year. I’ll have time to reflect on this crazy 2015, plan a better and healthier 2016, and relax.

  9. You already inspired me to read Tied up in Tinsel, Margot… and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is my other seasonal favourite.

  10. Thanks, Margot, you just added several books to my Christmas mystery list. I knew about Tied Up in Tinsel, but I did not know that the other books had any connection to Christmas.

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