The Magazine

Merry Murder

Crime fiction for Christmas.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By JON L. BREEN
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A Crossworder's Holiday
by Nero Blanc
Prime Crime, 224 pp., $22.95

A Puzzle in a Pear Tree
by Parnell Hall
Bantam, 308 pp., $23.95

The Christmas Garden Affair
by Ann Ripley
Kensington, 293 pp., $22

THE TRADITION of telling ghost stories at Christmas has a venerable lineage, reaching back well into the Middle Ages. Christmas detective stories have a shorter history. Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" (1892) is an early example, but Yuletide mysteries remained relatively rare --until, in recent years, their commercial possibilities began to be exploited with a stack of new books every year. Though Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes only one holiday case, recent writers of Holmes parodies, imitations, and pastiches have filled two volumes with them: "Holmes for the Holidays" (1996) and "More Holmes for the Holidays" (1999).

Over the years, some long-running sleuths have followed Holmes in investigating Yuletide crime, including Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout's "Christmas Party" (1957) and Simenon's great police detective in "Maigret's Christmas" (1954). Several of the prominent British sleuths solve cases involving traditional Christmas pantomimes: Ngaio Marsh's Roderic Alleyn in "Tied Up in Tinsel" (1972), G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown in "The Flying Stars" (1911), and John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey in "Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces" (in this year's "Rumpole Rests His Case"). The best of James Yaffe's intricately plotted novels about a Jewish mother detective, "Mom Meets Her Maker" (1990), provides a non-Christian's view of the holiday.

Approaches vary with the authors' styles. Christmas mysteries in the classical tradition often take the favored sleuth to a deceptively cozy holiday house party, preferably snowed in, at which the family and friends gathered only pretend to be jolly--and sometimes they don't even pretend. By contrast, hardboiled private eyes and jaded big city cops live in a world of emaciated Santas, barroom wreaths, and other symbols of the grim loneliness of a mean-street Noel.

The mystery writer who has turned most often to Christmas for inspiration is Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct cops pull holiday duty in "The Pusher" (1956), "Sadie When She Died" (1972), and "Money, Money, Money" (2001). "Ghost" (1980) uses the Christmas season to provide the only supernatural moment in McBain's long-running series. With the separately published short story "And All Through the House: Christmas Eve at the 87th Precinct" (1984), a station-house Nativity metaphor with an ironic final line to cut the sentimentality, McBain produced a Christmas novella--a cash-cow formula that has well served such bestselling crime writers as Mary Higgins Clark (several times), John Grisham, William Bernhardt, and Janet Evanovich.

Cozy writers are more likely than their noirish brethren to produce Yuletide mysteries, as shown in three examples from the 2002 crop. Two of these are from the highly specialized subgenre of crossword-puzzle mysteries, which dates back to Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey short story "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will" (collected in "Lord Peter Views the Body," 1928). To make a crossword the key to the solution is a formidable challenge even in the context of formalist artifice. The husband-and-wife team (Cordelia Frances Biddle and Steve Zettler) who write as Nero Blanc manage it in "A Crossworder's Holiday," gathering five agreeably written and trickily plotted short stories about their sleuthing team of puzzle designer Belle Graham and her private eye husband Rosco Polycrates. The last and best is "A Ghost of Christmas Past," about a Cotswolds house with a history of vanishings.

The running joke of Parnell Hall's "Puzzle Lady" mysteries, continuing with "A Puzzle in a Pear Tree," is that amateur sleuth Cora Felton is neither the master puzzle-setter nor the sweet little old lady her public image suggests. During rehearsal for a village Christmas pageant, in which Cora reluctantly plays one of the seven maids-a-milking, a threatening acrostic (to be followed by several more) is substituted for the partridge in a pear tree. Refreshingly in the current market, Hall is a pure entertainer, with no great themes or underlying seriousness. There is some sly social satire, as when the local PTA doesn't want actors in the village's "living manger" scene to change clothes in a local church--because they don't want the Nativity associated with organized religion. Hall has fun with hoary genre conventions, including the curare-tipped blowgun dart, the near-miss falling sandbag during a stage rehearsal, and the witness who fears talking to the amateur sleuth will mark him for murder as the Man Who Knew Too Much. As one of the few active practitioners of the elaborate Golden Age-style detective novel, Hall should be cherished.

ANN RIPLEY'S "The Christmas Garden Affair" is a more typical contemporary cozy in its emphasis on specialized background and disdain for fair-play clues. Louise Eldridge, PBS garden show host and heroine of several earlier Ripley novels, attends the new first lady's garden party, designed to celebrate native American plants.

Murder follows among a variety of horticultural hangers-on, many with reason to loathe rival television host Bunny Bainfield, whose breasts are more notable than her knowledge of botany. All the elements of a classical detective story are here: a despicable murder victim, a large cast of potential suspects, an unusual weapon, even a half-baked locked-room problem. But the reader has no shot at solving it, the amateur sleuth's relation with the police is absurd, and the climax is one of the sillier into-the-killer's-clutches sequences in the mystery genre. The holiday content is also slight until the feel-good final chapter at the Eldridge family feast.

For the best of the Christmas mysteries, turn to the classics. Agatha Christie's "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" (1938; U.S. title "Murder for Christmas"), in which a dying patriarch uses his Christmas gathering to announce his gleeful plans to change his will, is widely admired as one of her finest puzzles. Be warned, though, that there is not nearly as much holiday trimming in the novel as may appear from the picturesque television adaptation with David Suchet as Poirot.

Ellery Queen's "The Finishing Stroke" (1958) was originally intended by the authors (Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) to be the last bow of detective Queen. They set the first chapter in 1905, the year of birth of Ellery and his creators; the main body in 1929, the year the first Queen novel was published; and the final section in 1957, when Ellery at last solves the case that had stumped him all those years before: a Christmas house party of theatrical, artistic, and publishing people disrupted by murder and the appearance
of mysterious verses based on "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

The nostalgia mystery of "The Finishing Stroke," rich in period allusions, is commonplace now, but it was unusual when the book appeared. As with all Queen problems, the reader is given enough clues to work out the incredibly elaborate solution, provided (as Manfred Lee once observed) the reader is a genius.

CYRIL HARE, pseudonym of the English barrister and judge Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark (1900-1958), was less famous and prolific than Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie, but in "An English Murder" (1951), he produced one of the finest snowbound Christmas mysteries, notable both for its puzzle and its portrait of Britain's changing politics and social classes at mid-twentieth century.

The hideously ill-assorted "family" house party, containing enough social, political, and personal conflicts for a much larger group, consists of a dying peer, his neo-Nazi son, the Labour chancellor of the exchequer, the wife of a whiz kid who wants the latter's job, a Jewish history scholar from Eastern Europe, and a titled ingénue once romantically involved with the son. Also present are a Scotland Yard man guarding the chancellor and one of detective fiction's most fully realized butlers since Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone" appeared in 1868. Hare keeps the reader guessing about everything: Who will die, who will kill, and who will detect. The solution is ingenious, surprising, and perfectly fair if you follow the historical clues. There's not much Christmasy, apart from the snow, the cold, and the foreign scholar's name ("Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink"), but the novel is an under-appreciated classic of detective fiction.

Gather up all of these, and you'll have plenty of good mysteries to see you through the twelve days of Christmas.

A frequent contributor of essays on mystery fiction to The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.