The Top Ten Yuletide Mysteries
Things moving around on the roof in the middle of the night. Strange men coming down the chimney. Packages everywhere, marked Do Not Open. Guys wearing fake beards, disguised as a third-century saint, Nicholas of Myra, ringing bells and commanding passersby to toss money into kettles. The Christmas season reeks of crime.
Having just spent six months steeping myself in Christmas to write a book set in a shopping mall during the holidays, I consider myself a temporary expert. So what should we read (or see) to get into a properly apprehensive mood as the season nears? Here’s a stocking full of tales—although, since we know you haven’t all been good, this stocking contains the occasional lump of coal.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie (1938, under a different title)
There’s no leaving this out; entire herds of Christie fans would desert us, crying, “Bah! Humbug!” Simeon Lee is rich, awful, widely loathed, and the host of the Christmas dinner from hell, in which he informs his four relatively useless sons and their wives that he’s changing his will. Bang! He’s dead. In—naturally—a locked bedroom. A forbidding conundrum to most sleuths, but to Hercule Poirot, it might as well be a welcome mat. From start to finish, Christie’s prose conveys the assurance and confidence of a master, but her various publishers vacillated over the title, so beware: A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas are actually this very book. It is a model Christie and a model Christmas whodunit, and it features the famous “calendar clue.”
“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892
From a battered hat, a Christmas goose, a blue stone of fabulous value, and a blunder in avian anatomy, Doyle weaves a Christmas story that ends with a rare but seasonally appropriate act of mercy on Holmes’s part. Watson interrupts Holmes contemplating a hat (remember, this was before TV and iPhones) that, along with a Christmas goose, had been dropped in the street in a robbery attempt. As Holmes searches for the victim, he learns that the turkey’s crop (an area of the throat that many birds have but turkeys, umm, don’t) contained the “blue carbuncle” that had just been stolen from a countess. Holmes, who knows almost everything, is not au courant with turkey throats, or he would have saved Doyle from this howler. A “blue carbuncle,” by the way, is a blue garnet, and although we don’t usually think of garnets as rare stones, big, flawless blue ones are; one sold recently for $2 million.
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story, J. Jefferson Farjeon, 1937
A train carrying the usual British mix―a blond chorus girl, some snobs, a pale young man, an officer of the “Royal Psychical Society,” and the rest―is halted by snow in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Eve. (To misquote Dr. Frank N. Furter, “So your train got a flat? Well, how about that!”) The group leaves the train (naturally) and stumbles through a blizzard until they come to a stately house that’s unlocked and seemingly empty, if you don’t count the kettle on the boil and the lavish tea that’s been laid out for―apparently―them. If I sound like I’m making fun of the book, I’m really not: it’s a corker of its kind and the surprises keep coming. A publisher reprinted Farjeon’s tale in 2014, and surprise! It was a runaway hit.
And All Through the House, Ed McBain, 1984
I debated whether to put this title in quotation marks or italics because it began life as the name of a short story published (uncharacteristically) in Playboy, but was then reissued as a beautiful little hardcover, complete with slipcase. There’s nothing here that will surprise you except the tone, uniquely sweet for an 87th Precinct story, but the tone is worth the time it takes to read it. You’ll see the end coming halfway through, as out of place in this series as a daffodil in a Dumpster, but keep reading. McBain, as always, knew what he was doing.
Morality Play, Barry Unsworth, 1995
Christmas in Medieval England, and plague stalks the land. Unsworth’s short masterpiece isn’t so much a Christmas book as a tale set against the backdrop of Christmas, and it’s one of my favorites. (I love Unsworth’s work.) A small morality-play troupe battles the elements to get home but have to stop in a small town. They decide to stage one of their plays to earn enough money to push onward. (Morality plays depicted an ordinary person’s struggles with sins—sloth, greed, gluttony, each played by an actor―and the ultimate triumph of virtue.) The town, however, is gripped by the murder of a young boy. A scapegoat has been found, but the case is unconvincing, and as the troupe’s leader questions the scapegoat’s guilt, he has the idea of presenting a drama about the murder, a decision that brings the actors up against the town’s all-powerful lord and also suggests the creative impulses that led to the creation of theater.
“The Lady In the Lake” (Film, directed by Robert Montgomery), 1947
When Raymond Chandler, on whose novel this film is theoretically based, saw the final cut, he demanded the removal of his name. Chandler’s impulses were right on target: this is a one-of-a-kind film in many ways, but few of them make it good. Director Montgomery, who also played Philip Marlowe, had the idea of showing audiences the story through the detective’s eyes, which meant that everyone who speaks to Marlowe addresses the camera directly. (Montgomery sat in a basket dangling right below the lens so he was in view of the other actors.) Since Montgomery was a star, Marlowe passes a statistically unlikely number of reflective surfaces. When he gets hit, the camera jiggles; when he smokes, we see a hand reach down and pick up the ciggie and move it just below the camera’s range. Then we see smoke. It was just as silly as it sounds. For some reason, Montgomery chose to re-set the story at Christmastime, and the only music on the soundtrack is a cappella renditions of carols. And if that’s not enough, the credits contain the name of a nonexistent actress: Ellay Mort, who, we are told, plays “Chrystal Kingsby.” Kingsby, dead before the film starts, is never seen, and “Ellay Mort” is a dreadful pun on elle est mort, French for “She is dead.” Things go downhill from there. But you gotta see it once, if only for Audrey Totter.