Five Seasonal Mystery Reviews
by David Vineyard.

   â€™Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even the corpse…

   Wrapping paper, ribbons, candy canes, and Christmas tree ornaments aren’t the only things that pile up around the holiday season, so do bodies, and almost from the start of the genre, the holiday of peace and love has also produced no few crimes and criminals.

   Sherlock Holmes made his debut back in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, and crime and murder were popular themes in numerous competing Christmas Annual‘s over the years. Since books had long been a traditional gift at Christmastime, it was no surprise as the genre became more popular publishers often scheduled their bestselling mystery writers books around the holiday season hoping readers would pick up a copy of the new work for themselves and as a gift.

   It was an ideal time for the genre in the Golden Age with families and friends gathered in tense stately mansions for a little mulled wine and cyanide, and the holiday often featured in classics of the genre.

   Here are just a few examples over the years from classic Golden Age to modern thrillers.

NICHOLAS BLAKE – Thou Shell of Death. Nigel Strangeways #2. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1936. US title: Shell of Death. Harper, hardcover. 1936.

   Nigel Strangeways is kept busy in his second outing, where he he encounters his wife Georgina for the second time, with no courting involved, and takes on a complex mystery that depends on a good use of snow and an adventurous finale.

  MICHAEL INNES – Appleby’s End. John Appleby #10. Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1945. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1945.

   Appleby’s End is a train station, not the finish of John Appleby, where young Detective Inspector John Appleby of Scotland Yard is deposited and becomes involved in the affairs of the Raven family in one of Innes’s best fantasmagorical outings. There are curses, pulp fiction, seeming lunacy that is eventually explained, actual lunacy no one can explain, Appleby meets and proposes to Judith Raven, the future Mrs. Appleby, while both are naked in a haystack, the wit and chuckles are genuine, the mystery good, and the end result a cross between an Ealing comedy and Agatha Christie.

   Granted your taste in eccentricity may get strained, but in his tenth outing Appleby and Innes are in fine fettle for the holiday celebrations. When he wanted to no one wrote a wittier mystery than Innes. The chuckles and chortles here are deep and real.

ELLERY QUEEN – The Finishing Stroke. Ellery Queen #24. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1958.

   From 1958, this late entry in the Queen saga is the American equivalent of the Great House mystery and incidentally a late recounting of Ellery’s first case.

   Granted it is a bit hard to reconcile this Ellery with the one of The Roman Hat Mystery much less Cat of Many Tails, but there is a rhyming killer whose poesy predicts murder to follow and a case that takes Ellery his entire career to successfully solve.

   Not the best of the Queen books, but nowhere near as much of a failure as some critics would have it.

  DAVID WALKER – Winter of Madness. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1964. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1964.

   It’s back to Ealing, with a bit of Monty Python thrown in, as Lord Duncatto hosts a Christmas guest list at his Scottish estates that includes his beautiful and easily charmed wife and daughter, an Oxford educated son of a Mafia don, Russian spies, a mad scientist, an android, and Tyger Clyde, the idiot second best man in the British Secret Service (007 is busy) who spends more time seducing Duncatto’s wife and daughter than actually helping as all comes to a head on Duncatto’s private ski slope with a roaringly funny shoot out.

   Walker is best know for his humorous novel Wee Geordie, about a naive Highlander come to London to compete in the Olympics, and Harry Black and the Tiger about the hunt for a man-eater in Post War India, both books made into films.

IAN FLEMING – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond #11. Jonathan Cape, UK, hardcover, 1963. New American Library, US, hardcover, 1963. Film: Eon, 1969.

   James Bond, 007, celebrates Christmas with a spectacular escape on skis from Ernst Stavro Blofield of SPECTRE’s Alpine HQ Piz Gloria and an encounter with Tracy, the daughter of Marc Ange Draco capo of the Union Corse, and soon to be future Mrs. Bond, foiling a plot to destroy British agriculture, and setting up a New Years Day raid to free Tracy and finally do away with Blofield and SPECTRE — almost.

   It’s one of the best of the Bond books, and ended up the only Bond film to introduce a genuine Christmas song (“Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown”).

   It isn’t Christmas until James Bond throws a SPECTRE henchman into a snow blower cleaning the train tracks.

   These are just a few examples of the genre celebrating Christmas in its own special way. Everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers has taken on a holiday mystery. Even the 1953 film of Mickey Spillane’s first Mike Hammer mystery I, The Jury has a Christmas setting, as does the Robert Montgomery Philip Marlowe film of Lady in the Lake.

   Maybe it’s because so many of us remember awaking to a special book on Christmas that we associate the genre we love with the holiday, maybe the canny Christmas release schedule of publishers, perhaps Mr. Dickens and his ghost story led us to wonder why there couldn’t be murder for the holidays if there were ghosts. Whatever the reason, the red in the holiday isn’t always from candy canes and Santa’s suit, and most of us are perfectly happy to associate a bit of mayhem with the eggnog and turkey.

   Hopefully this Christmas morning will find you unwrapping a happy murder or two under your tree.