As traditional as counting down the shopping days to Christmas or making plans to visit out of town family is the appearance of Christmas and holiday mysteries. When did the tradition start? Why are these books so popular? Are they primarily English and/or historical? Who deserves the top of the tree, gold star accolade for this seasonal happening?
The answer to the last question is the easiest:
Take a bow Charles Dickens for A Christmas Carol: In Prose, Being a Ghost Story for Christmas.
Just below this gold star story sit the other 4 ornaments of my affection, rounding out my top 5 Christmas Mysteries:
1) A Christmas Carol: In Prose, Being a Ghost Story for Christmas by Charles Dickens
Christmas is a time of ghosts, or as we might refer to them in the 21st century, memories and recollections of past holidays—family and friends who have passed into another realm from their place at the hearth and around the table. We all feel the passage of time during the holidays.
Dickens captures this wistful, occasionally guilty nostalgia with precision and humor. Shades from our past influence our present and pave a way to the future that we are daily creating. Like the words of the Ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's former business partner, when he explains to Scrooge why he is fettered with an appalling chain:
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, ‘the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?”
We know that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come are successful in their quest to have Scrooge embrace the spirit of Christmas—to redeem his life and change his future. It was said of Ebenezer Scrooge ever after, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.”
2) Spirit of Steamboat: A Walter Longmire Story by Craig Johnson
Spirit of Steamboat: A Walter Longmire Story opens with Sherriff Longmire alone in his office on Christmas Eve. To keep him company, he has a well-read copy of Dickens’s Yuletide story. Breaking into his solitude, Walter’s dispatcher Ruby brings a young woman into his office.
I glanced down at my book and read the line “. . . no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused. . .” I patted my ancient copy of A Christmas Carol and stood to accept the visitor.
Thus ushering in another theme of Christmas mysteries—the compelling need to make things right, to rectify the mistakes of the past, to peel away the inaccuracies that often surround long ago mysteries…and to do so before the older protagonists leave this mortal coil.
Longmire’s mysterious visitor asks if Walter can arrange for her to visit his predecessor, former sheriff Lucian Connolly. Johnson’s characters are well-drawn and memorable, as we see when Longmire agrees to bring the woman to Lucian’s assisted living center. Abandon thoughts of elderly folks going gently into that good night.
The door swung open viciously, and we were treated to the sight of an old, one-legged man in boxer shorts and a wife-beater T-shirt with more than a little twenty-three-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve on his breath.
3) A Christmas Homecoming by Anne Perry
While Johnson gratifies readers with his knack for quirky details, other writers provide satisfaction in different ways. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple whodunits have a mystery—perhaps a murder and an array of suspects—all gathered in the same spot be it a village or a country manor.
Anne Perry’s A Christmas Homecoming follows that pattern with a Christmas holiday setting that underpins the eventual triumph of the forces of light over the tentacles of evil. In A Christmas Homecoming, Charlotte Pitt’s mother (Thomas Pitt’s mother-in-law) Caroline, travels with her husband’s theatrical troupe to a remote Yorkshire fishing village so that Joshua Fielding can produce a stage-version of Dracula. These touchstones—remote, mansion, lonely—are hallmarks of a self-contained Christmas story that implicitly promises at its conclusion that doors which have been “shut for too long” will be opened “to let the good in, too.”
Let the wild bells ring out!
4) All Through the Night by Mary Higgins Clark
Another doyenne of the Christmas mystery oeuvre is Mary Higgins Clark, “America’s own Queen of Suspense.” In her story All Through the Night, a number of disparate threads are woven into a compelling New York City tale. A baby is left on the doorstep of an Upper West Side church at the same time as a young thief is stealing the church’s greatest treasure, a chalice with an embedded diamond in the shape of a star.
It’s no accident that babies and star-shaped treasures are swirled together in a holiday yarn, particularly when it offers Clark the opportunity to give Alvirah and Willy, a sleuthing couple beloved by her readers, a chance to solve the mystery. All Through the Night embodies the spare elegance of the Christmas season. If you were to suspect that the vast majority of Christmas mysteries were wrapped up by Christmas morning, you’d be right. It’s all over when the baby is placed in the manger and the heavenly host proclaim.
5) Crewel Yule: A Needlecraft Mystery by Monica Ferris
Occasionally, puns prove irresistible when crafting a Christmas tale, like Monica Ferris’s Crewel Yule: A Needlecraft Mystery. The insanity of Christmas—one short month that has tradition, family obligations, and, for shopkeepers big and small, the crucial make-it-or-break-it sales pressures—lends itself to a lighthearted, rueful approach. Ferris serves up a fun mix of murder and mayhem.
Snow is not the only thing falling this December…spirits are, too. That’s because this year’s needlework convention in Nashville is tragically interrupted when Milwaukee shop owner Belle Hammermill tumbles nine stories to her untimely death.
But don’t feel too sad. Another tradition of cozy mysteries that infiltrates the Christmas stories is that usually the untimely victim is not exactly everyone’s favorite person—and for valid reasons. When Cherry, an acquaintance of Belle Hammermill, sees her body, she laments,
How could she be sad? She hated Belle! But tears spilled from her eyes. That sight of her, broken like that, was too much, too awful.
Ultimately in this season of giving, all of these stories give readers exactly what they want. Seasonal predictability, once-a-year gatherings of family and friends, traditional church services with music that evokes childhood memories—these are some of the elements that make Christmas and holiday mysteries a welcome respite, self-contained and redemptive, much like the season itself.
What's your favorite Christmas mystery? Start/join the conversation below!
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.
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