The Top Ten Yuletide Mysteries Part II
An English Murder, Cyril Hare, 1951
I know this stocking is positively sagging with British books, but the Brits essentially invented both the Christmas holiday and the Christmas mystery, of which this is a ripping example. In real life, its author, Cyril Hare, was Gordon Clark, the son of a wealthy wine merchant who went into law and ended up a judge of a county court. His distinctively orderly mind left its print on his very finely crafted mysteries. In this one, we have a dying and almost penniless peer of the realm, Lord Warbeck, who has gathered the family around him for what will almost certainly be his last Christmas. So far, so conventional, but Hare mixes in a quilt vast political figures in the person of Lord Warbeck’s son, a neo-Fascist; his nephew, a Socialist who is also Chancellor of the Exchequer; and a foreigner—not the stereotyped “foreigner” of many English Golden Age mysteries, but rather a survivor of Auschwitz. The story is anything but predictable, with a very serious look beneath the polite veneer of British anti-Semitism.
Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, Stephanie Barron, 2014
Jane Austen was, of course, a detective of the heart, but in Stephanie Barron’s terrific series, of which this is the twelfth, she’s also a detective in the more usual sense. Barron’s books are meticulously researched; the occasional drop-ins by Regency celebrities (Lord Byron and the Prince Regent, among others) are convincing; and the mysteries themselves are solid and ingenious, as befits a writer who came to the world of literature via the CIA. Best of all, Jane herself is truly a woman of her historical period, not one of those irritating anachronisms who can split a string bean with an arrow at forty paces and has an outfit in Lincoln green hidden in the back of her closet. In this one, the Austen family and a diverse group of guests are snowbound in a gorgeous ancestral home when murder knocks on the door. The prose calls to mind Austen’s own, the guests/suspects are nicely drawn, and it really does feel like Christmas.
Jerusalem Inn, Martha Grimes, 1984
American writer Grimes mines the British crime novel vein with rich results in her series of mysteries featuring Scotland Yard’s Richard Jury, each volume of which has as its title the name of a pub. In this, the fifth book in the series, Jury and his rich and titled friend (and amateur detective), Melrose Plant, are at a manor house, part of a gathering that brings together a dozen of England’s foremost literary figures. Naturally, they get snowed in; naturally, there’s a murder, somehow related to another that occurs very early in the book. A string of clues leads Jury and Plant to the humble Jerusalem Inn, which has its own mystery: what happened to the missing figure of the infant Jesus in the inn’s old nativity scene? Grimes is always good, and I think this is one of her best.
“Die Hard” (Film, directed by John McTiernan, written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, 1988)
Okay, we’re closing with sort of a ringer; it’s actually a kind of undeveloped negative of Christmas that also happens to be a great film, with maybe the most perfect cast since The Maltese Falcon and attitude that won’t quit. From the opening moments of the credits,1940s crooner/band leader Vaughn Monroe reveals previously unexplored continents of musical squareness in “Let It Snow” through the first scenes. In these, the Christmas party in the skyscraper of the Nakatomi Corporation (this was when people were afraid the Japanese were going to buy America) is, well, interrupted by the insane Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman at his very best) and, as his henchman, the lethal goldilocks killer called Karl (ballet dancer Alexander Godunov—who knew?). The only person standing between the baddies and a really rotten Christmas is New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), who is afraid of absolutely nothing. Except heights. In a skyscraper. And his wife is at the party, so he spends his Christmas half a mile in the air, walking barefoot over broken glass, and being stalked by a guy who wants to do a grand pas de chat directly on McClane’s beating heart. Rent it for Christmas.
Timothy Hallinan has been nominated for the Edgar, Nero, Shamus, Macavity, and Silver Dagger awards. He is the author of nineteen widely praised books, including For the Dead, The Hot Countries, Crashed, Little Elvises, The Fame Thief,King Maybe, and Herbie’s Game, which won the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery. After years of working in the television and music industries, he now writes full-time. He divides his time between California and Thailand.
His most recent novel is Fields Where They Lay, a Junior Bender Holiday mystery, which is a Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2016. It is set in a shopping mall specifically and Los Angeles generally.