The Magazine

Merry Murder

Crime fiction for Christmas.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.