I will never be Buddy the Elf.
Anyone who's known me for longer than a hot minute knows the Yuletide season turns me into an absolute Grinch pre-heart-growing-three-times-bigger. The sight of green and red lights actually makes me break out into itchy hives.
And don't even get me started on the jingly carols.
Which means, I'm always going to gravitate towards the darker side of the holidays, where murder and mayhem mixes with the mistletoe. As I've already covered my favorite horror-based alternatives to holiday cheer in “Holidays for the Halloween-Hearted,” I thought I'd shine a light on some great Christmas-themed mysteries.
Bones 1.9: “The Man in the Fallout Shelter”
I may have given up on this show many moons (and seasons) ago, but the early episodes were truly spectacular. In this premier season slice of holiday cheer, the Squints (and Booth) find themselves trapped in the Smithsonian labs under quarantine over Christmas thanks to a mummified body that may have been hosting Valley Fever fungal spores.
Only on a crime procedural, am I right?
We learn that Booth (David Boreanaz) has a son, that Angela's (Michaela Conlin) dad is none other than Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top—that still remains one of the best, most unexpected guest castings in a show ever—and more sad details about Temperance's (Emily Deschanel) tragic childhood.
There's a lovely and emotional sequence where everyone gets a moment with their families (separated by very thick sheets of glass) and we see Hodgins (T.J. Thyne) without a shirt.
And boy, was that a revelation.
This remains a go-to episode this time of year, regardless of how my feelings for the show have cooled.
Probably because of that shirtless Hodgins moment…
And the bit where Booth is in a Santa hat, higher than a kite thanks to a vaccine reaction.
Castle 5.9: “Secret Santa”
Someone's killed Santa! I'd be more upset about it if it didn't look like Old Saint Nick was really a big, fat thief who had been shot and thrown from a helicopter while attempting to abscond with a bag full of presents he had no right to.
Of course, in true Castle fashion, we learn that there's more to the story than that. This professional Santa was trying to atone for the sins of his greedy past and right a terrible wrong, leading to an unexpected Christmas miracle for one struggling family.
Castle's (Nathan Fillion) inherent childishness and belief in all things magical naturally conflicts with Beckett's (Stana Katic) logical pragmatism during their first holiday as a couple. He wants nothing more than to share all of his time-honored traditions, but she's hesitant to be so jolly in a season that carries such painful memories tied to her mother's murder.
It's a Wonderful Life plays a pivotal role in the dead Santa's origin story, and Castle has one of his best wild theories yet: the stolen clock was “commissioned by a secret society to count down the end of days. A secret society of Santas, who are the guardians of time.” (Get Nic Cage on the line, stat.)
Then Espo (Jon Huertas) and Ryan (Seamus Dever) have a full on smack-down fight at Santa School, so it's win/win all around.
The Mentalist 3.10: “Jolly Red Elf”
Someone's killed Santa—again! (It sure does seem like TV has it out for Santa impersonators; you'd think professional clowns would be more of a target for murderous rage than the Jolly Red Elf.)
This time, Santa's been killed via alcohol poisoning and a long drop over a balcony railing. Perhaps Mrs. Claus should have kept him away from the spiked eggnog.
Jane (Simon Baker), however, isn't convinced that the old man simply fell off the wagon and into the street, suicide note notwithstanding. All of the signs point to a helping hand and some dangerous therapy gone wrong, so our nattily-dressed, unorthodox hero promptly puts himself in harm's way to prove a murderer put too much booze into that tummy that jiggled like a bowl full of jelly.
Could the victim have been killed by a rival, traditionally-minded Santa who was angry that he wanted to “open the doors to Santas of all creeds, backgrounds, and colors”? Did someone break the sacred confines of AA? Or perhaps the attractive young lady his friends referred to as his “ho ho ho” is involved?
It's not really the holidays until someone's blackout drunk, and this episode leaves Jane more than a little tipsy.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries 2.13: “Murder Under the Mistletoe”
Alright, so this isn't technically a Christmas episode, being as it's set in July. But, Phryne (Essie Davis) and friends are celebrating “Christmas in July,” and there's a snowbound castle, so I'm counting it.
Phryne's party has scarcely arrived at the chateau when they discover that one of their hosts has been electrocuted by Christmas tree lights. I always knew those things weren't to be trusted...
But, of course, this being Miss Fisher, she quickly uncovers that it was no accident; there's someone in their midst acting with malice aforethought. And after these festivities are over, none of them will ever be able to hear “The Twelve Days of Christmas” the same way again.
The murders are all cleverly plotted in a fashion that would've done Dame Agatha Christie proud. Phryne wears a charming Santa-style get-up, and Walter Bishop (aka John Noble) himself turns up in flashbacks as the sophisticated lady sleuth's late uncle.
Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn
The second in the Lady Julia series, this Victorian mystery is heavy on the Gothic undertones. The setting is a medieval monastery that was converted into the sprawling March family estate several generations ago. It's a place where the ghosts of monks are said to still walk with secret passages abound.
But when a ghostly jewel thief begins prowling the halls after midnight—and a guest is brutally murdered in the old chapel—Lady Julia finds herself once again partnering with the enigmatic, broody, totally Byronic inquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane to get to the bottom of things.
Raybourn commits herself fully to all the tropes of the genre: Brisbane is on par with Rochester and Heathcliffe in terms of his mysterious background, smoldering good looks, and sharp temper. Lady Julia is a smart woman unafraid to speak her mind and put her foot down. There's a crazy cast of victims and suspects, scads of sexual tension, and it all unfolds against an exceedingly English background. There's Christmas puddings, wassail, Boxing Day festivities, and a wild family named after Shakespearean characters. What fun!
Basically Every Single Shane Black Movie
Shane Black really, really loves Christmas. Nearly every film he's ever written/directed has been set during “the most wonderful time of the year.”
- Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
- The Long Kiss Goodnight
- Iron Man 3
And every single one of those films has been delightfully off-kilter, violent, infinitely quotable, and hysterical. You can always count on more explosions in the streets than ornaments on the tree in a Shane Black Christmas—the perfect antidote after one too many cloying Hallmark original movies.
I've already expounded upon Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang's many virtues, though it bears repeating: this neo-noir is one of the best, funniest movies Robert Downey Jr.'s ever starred in, and was probably the last time Val Kilmer gave a truly great performance (as the sassy, gay detective Gay Perry).
Iron Man 3 also features a stellar turn by RDJ, this time as everyone's favorite narcissistic, hot mess of a superhero. What better time for a Tony Stark meltdown/megalomaniac's attempt to assassinate the President than Christmas? A giant bunny and a Dora the Explorer watch are involved, because Shane Black is a mad genius.
And The Long Kiss Goodnight is a buddy flick starring Geena Davis as an amnesiac assassin-turned-schoolteacher (yes, really) who falls into a series of increasingly ridiculous and bloody mishaps with taxi driver-turned-unsuspecting-partner Samuel L. Jackson. That's right—Nick Fury himself plays the terrified straight man to a knife-wielding, platinum-blonde Geena Davis. It's exactly as entertaining as it sounds (and far too underrated—check it out immediately; sooner if possible).
So when the kids start screaming over the presents and Great Aunt Eunice is digging into the most embarrassing family history; when the annoying earworms blaring at every store drive you apoplectic; when you simply cannot handle one more saccharine greeting from a bell-ringer; you've always got outlets for any holiday-based murderous rage that may pop up.
For it is far better to spend the holidays in a fictional universe than in a cell awaiting bail for candy cane-related stabbing incidents.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.