Monday, November 16, 2009

Murder Most Festive...

Most of us mark the year with several different holidays and festivals. Some of them are religious and others aren’t, but either way, those days are important parts of our cultures. They’re woven into the fabric of our lives, and we often carry fond (and sometimes, not-at-all-fond) memories of observing them. Because those days are such integral parts of real life, they can also serve as compelling backdrops and plot elements in crime fiction. After all, well-written crime fiction is about real, believable characters. Real people celebrate holidays, so it makes sense that fictional people do, too.

Some of the best-known “holiday” murder mysteries take place at Christmas. That’s such a common theme that I’ll only mention a few here. One is Agatha Christie’s A Holiday for Murder (AKA Murder for Christmas and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Simeon Lee, the much-despised patriarch of the Lee family. Simeon Lee has spent his life tyrannizing his family and womanizing; in fact, he’s driven a few of his children away. One Christmas, he invites all of his adult children and their spouses to celebrate the holiday at the family home. All of them accept his invitation, but for different reasons, and no-one believes his invitation is a sincere attempt at reconciliation. When everyone arrives, Lee makes it clear that he’s got several surprises in store; one of them is that Lee has invited his “black sheep” son, Harry, as well as Pilar Estravedos (his granddaughter) and Stephen Farr (the son of his former business partner). Since many of the family members are estranged from one another, we soon learn that this gathering is Lee’s idea of a very twisted joke. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Lee announces his disappointment with everyone in his family, and taunts everyone with his wealth. Later that evening, Lee is brutally murdered. Poirot, who’s staying nearby with his friend, Colonel Johnson, is called in to help investigate. Since everyone had a reason to hate Lee, there’s no lack of suspects.

Another of Christie’s stories, The Theft of the Royal Ruby (AKA The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding), also takes place at Christmas. In that story, Poirot is asked to help recover a stolen ruby for an Eastern prince who’d bought it to give to his fiancée. If the ruby isn’t recovered, there’s serious risk of a scandal. Poirot’s told that the ruby is at the King’s Lacey, the country home of the Lacey family, so he reluctantly goes there, supposedly to experience a traditional English Christmas. Through a series of ruses (I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun), Poirot recovers the ruby and tricks the thief into admitting guilt. This story, more than A Holiday for Murder, describes English Christmas traditions; in fact, one of them, the plum pudding, plays an important role in the recovery of the ruby.

Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel also takes place over the Christmas holidays. In that novel, Troy Alleyn, who’s an artist and Roderick Alleyn’s wife, has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hillary Bill-Tasmin, a wealthy antiques dealer, over the Christmas holiday. She travels to his home, Halberd’s Manor, to do the portrait. While she’s there, Bill-Tasmin throws a Christmas party for the locals that includes a festive meal and gifts for the children. Instead of having Father Christmas deliver the gifts, though, he asks his Uncle F. Fleaton Forrester (“Uncle Flea”) to dress up as a Druid to deliver the gifts. At the last moment, though, “Uncle Flea” falls ill and his servant, Moult, dresses up as the Druid instead. Just after the gifts have been distributed, Moult disappears and later turns up dead, and Bill-Tasmin’s staff comes under suspicion. Moult’s been having difficulties with the staff members lately and, what’s more, all of them are previously-convicted criminals. Bill-Tasmin believes strongly in the power of rehabilitation, and has hired convicts to try to help them. When Alleyn’s called in to investigate the case, though, he finds that the houseguests, despite their respectability, are just as likely suspects as the house staff members are.

Of course, murder interrupts other festivities besides Christmas. In Agatha Christie’s short story The Coming of Mr. Quin (That’s the first story in which Mr. Harley Quin appears) Mr. Satterthwaite is attending a New Year’s Eve party being hosted by Tom and Lady Laura Evesham. During the course of the evening, conversation turns to the case of Derek Capel, the previous owner of their home, Royston. Ten years earlier, Capel had shot himself for no apparent reason, and there’s still speculation as to why he did so. At the first mention of the case, Tom Evesham halts the conversation, but afterwards, when the female guests have gone upstairs for the night, the discussion comes back to Capel. Just then, Mr. Harley Quin knocks at the door. His car’s broken down, and he needs shelter while it’s being fixed. He soon gets involved in the disucssion about Capel and guides everyone else until they realize what really happened that led to Capel’s suicide.

Part of Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town also takes place over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That novel focuses on the wealthy Wright family, who are the social leaders of the small New England town of Wrightsville. When Queen visits Wrightsville to get some rest and do some writing, he soon finds himeslf embroiled in the Wrights’ personal affairs, including the broken engagement of their daughter, Nora, whose fiance, Jim Haight, unexpectedly left town three years previously. When Jim returns and the couple reunites, the family plans for the wedding. On New Year’s Eve, the Wrights throw a party during which Jim’s obnoxious sister, Rosemary, is murdered with a poisoned cocktail. Soon, Jim is arrested for the murder, and only Queen and one of the Wright daughters, Lola, believe in Jim’s innocence.

Colin Dexter’s The Secret of Annexe 3 is a very interesting study of a group of three couples of partygoers who are brought together at Oxford’s Haworth Hotel’s New Year’s Eve gala. The main event of the party is a fancy-dress ball at which one of the guests dresses as a Rastafarian. When he’s found dead in his room the next morning, Inspector Morse is called to the scene, since he lives near the hotel. Morse begins by trying to track down the victim's wife and the guests who had rooms adjacent to the victim, only to find that all of the addresses they’d given the hotel are faked. In order to find out who killed the Rastafarian and why, Morse and Lewis first have to find out who the other guests really were.

In Kate Borden’s Death of a Turkey, the third of her Peggy Jean Turner stories, the focus is on the American celebration of Thanksgiving. In that novel, Turner, who’s the mayor of the fictional New England town of Cobbs Landing, is pleased that the town has been turned into a colonial-style tourist attraction, because the town desperately needs the tourism revenue. She’s less enthusiastic about the local banker’s plan to host a re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving, because she’d rather Thanksgiving be a family holiday. Finally, she’s persuaded to go along with the plan and the re-enactment is organized. However, the careful Thanksgiving plans are soon threatened by a series of vandalism crimes, including a broken window in the hardware store that Peggy owns. Then, an obnoxious visitor who’s renting a neighbor’s home for the winter is found dead on the village green. Peggy soon realizes that she herself is a suspect in the murder, so she works with newly-reappointed sheriff Stu McIntyre to clear her name and find the real killer before the tourists arrive for the celebration.

Holiday celebrations can be natural contexts for murder mysteries. They often involve family gatherings and parties where old animosities flare. They’re also hectic times where a murderer can make plans and carry out a murder with much less chance of being caught. That said, though, the best “holiday” murder mysteries also involve a taut plot and an undercurrent of suspense that reminds the reader that this is a murder story. That’s what makes Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party a particularly absorbing example of a “holiday” murder. In that story, a young teenager, Joyce Reynolds, is drowned in a bucket of apples during a Hallowe’en party. On the afternoon of the party, she boasted that she saw a murder and Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story author, thinks that’s why Joyce was killed. She asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. What Poirot finds is that Joyce's murder is connected to a whole series of seemingly unrelated events, and that her killer is quite willing to strike again.

Do you think a “celebration” theme makes an appropriate background for a murder mystery, or do you think it detracts from the suspense?


  1. I think it makes a good background--lots of people together under a degree of stress. I know *I've* wanted to commit murder at holiday gatherings before.... :)

    Great topic!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Thanks - It really does seem that whenever one gathers a group of people together, especially for a holiday, the result is stress. Those undercurrents of emotion, plus the interactions of the people, can make for a really suspenseful background.

  3. I'm with Elizabeth. A holiday adds another layer of depth and provides a "different" backdrop to the story, one that's often more interesting than just another day-in-the-life.

  4. Alan - That's a well-taken point; holiday backdrops are different from everyday life, so they can add a new level of interest. At the same time, though, since most of us have observed holidays in some form, we can identify with the holiday setting.

  5. I too agree with Elizabeth, in that the stress of get-togethers and "consumer withdrawal symptoms" can be quite lethal! (Of course, these days, "consumer withdrawal symptoms" aren't what they were when I was younger, given the Internet and the crazy long opening hours of stores.)
    However I also think that the holiday season can be the setting for a bit of, er, sentimental tosh - without wishing to seem rude. For example, I love Mary Higgins Clark but could totally do without her Christmas "mysteries".
    I can't think of an example, but holiday seasons can also be used quite poignantly, eg to show someone's loneliness, an absent relative or friend, a family member in prison, etc. You know the kind of scene: "while the rest of the world was out celebrating......."

    Finally, there are books that just ignore it. I know that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but a good example is in a book I've just read, Blood Safari by Deon Meyer (superb, by the way). That book opens on Christmas Day with the main character knocking down a wall in his house (alone). He gets a phone call which kicks off the plot of the book, taking place over the next few days. The holiday season impinges on the plot barely at all, but kinds of runs along underneath it. Quite effective.

  6. Just a short note to tell you how useful this post was! Yesterday I promised a Danish blogger friend that I would write a guest post on Christmas and Crime for her. I had some ideas, but I will bookmark your post for further inspiration.


  7. Maxine - You're right that the sentimentality of holidays can be a bit cloying; I have to admit that I, too, avoid certain holiday-themed books for exactly that reason. When I want to read a murder mystery, I want that to be the focus of the plot. That said, though, you're right that all the stress of major holidays can make for a really believable background to a good murder plot.

    Thanks, also, for reminding me about Blood Safari. I've had that on my TBR list since I read Cathy's reviewof it at Kittling: Books. Looks like it's time to rearrange my ever-growing list.

    It's funny you'd mention the "poignant" kind of murder mystery that uses holidays as a sort of contrast background. Carol O'Connell's Judas Child is like that. It focuses on the disappearance of two girls three days before Christmas, and the connection between those disappearances and a Christmas Day rape/murder fifteen years previously. Rather dark, but compelling.

    Dorte - Thanks for the kind words : ). I'm glad you found this post useful. Here's another list you may find useful. It's's list of murder mysteries with a Christmas theme:

  8. Thank you, Margot.

    Re what Maxine suggests, "while the rest of the world was out celebrating......." an example could be Ann Cleeves´ Raven Black with lonely Magnus Tait.

  9. Thanks for that example, Dorte - I've read Cleeves, but not that one; I appreciate your sharing it.

  10. The "Shetland Quartet" by Ann Cleeves is very good, I think. I had forgotten that about Christmas in "Raven Black", Dorte, well-remembered. I have read the first three in the series and am looking forward to the final fourth episode soon. (I wonder in fact if the author will be tempted to make it more than a "quartet", as she certainly seems to have enough information about the region and her characters to create more than 4 novels!)

  11. Maxine - I have heard such great things about the Shetland Quartet, although I confess I haven't read them. Very, very lax of me as her Vera Stanhope novels are terrific. I'll have to remedy that one.

  12. As fun as the holidays can be, they do add unexpected and tense elements to our lives, that's for sure. I love the title Tied Up in Tinsel!

  13. Elzabeth - Isn't that a great title?! I've always liked it, too; it's an absorbing book, as well. You are right that the holidays truly are "never a dull moment," with all that's good and bad about that.

  14. I was actually very glad of the last two christmas/new year holidays in the UK, because they enabled me to gulp down the whole of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Girl who Played with Fire in two straight days each, no distractions! (Someone else had to get the dinner on those two days each time, and no washing got done!)