It’s what every book-lover longs to discover beside the tangerine at the bottom of their stocking: a classic Christmas story. This year many publishers are feeding our seasonal need by reissuing Christmas-themed murder-mysteries by mid-20th-century authors like Francis Duncan and Georgette Heyer. It may be the season of goodwill, but, in these books, it’s also a ripe time for murder.
In “A Christmas Party” by Georgette Heyer (originally called “Envious Casca”), the Herriard family, plus a few eccentric hangers on, are gathered at Lexham Manor. They are all so cross with one another that no one thinks it unusual when Nathaniel Herriard locks his bedroom door and refuses to open it to anyone – brother, nephew, niece or servant. He is silent, we discover, because he’s been murdered. With so many suspects under one roof, Christmas is the perfect setting for a thrilling whodunit.
Many of us can relate to the idea of families quarrelling over Christmas, and no doubt it’s reassuring to read about a household in which everyone is getting on worse than in your own. Perhaps there is even some morally dubious pleasure in fantasising about murdering one of your own family members. Detectives, like Inspector Parris in C.H.B Kitchin’s “Crime at Christmas”, are well aware of just how inspiring a good murder mystery can be: “Crimes themselves tend to imitate the detective story,” he reflects. Indeed, in “A Christmas Party”, the means of death is discovered thanks to a book which the murderer tried to destroy. So I hasten to warn against using these whodunits as “howtodoits”.
These Christmas mysteries were written the best part of 80 years ago, so reading them now means embarking on a nostalgic journey akin to settling in for the “Downton Abbey” Christmas special. As we turn the pages, we can’t help but enjoy wandering through these palatial abodes, dreaming of a time and place when dressing for dinner meant something more than donning a Christmas jumper. But this was also a time when “new money” was chasing out the old. In Francis Duncan’s “Murder for Christmas”, the original aristocratic owner of Sherbroome House, who can no longer afford there, watches its new inhabitants with powerful – possibly even murderous – resentment.
Christmas is “a mysterious, as well as magical, time of year”, writes Martin Edwards in his introduction to “Silent Nights”, an enchanting collection of Christmas mysteries, which includes gems from Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others. He draws our attention to the “hallowed tradition of telling ghost stories around the fireside as the year draws to a close”, and suggests that “Christmas tales of crime and detection have a similar appeal”.
While mysteries and ghost stories share a shivery thrill, the unique appeal of a mystery story is that it has a solution. There is great pleasure in being kept guessing – with a feast of characters, their many motives, and red herrings aplenty – but what makes us turn the pages of a mystery is our desire to discover the truth. Thankfully, an inspector from Scotland Yard is usually called in to help, and as we reach the final pages we are told who committed the murder, why and how. All is resolved, all loose ends neatly tied up, and we close the book with a feeling of quiet satisfaction.
The appeal of finding a solution is never greater than at Christmas. Aside from the family fuss, the break from work and the closing of the year make it a moment for reflection, a time when we wonder what we’re doing with our lives and feebly attempt to improve them with New Year’s resolutions. It’s a time when we ask ourselves questions to which we rarely know the answers. Perhaps this is why we can seek solace in classic murder mysteries: not only do they allow us to indulge in fantasies of murdering our families and wallow in the comfort of nostalgia; more importantly, they’re an opportunity to solve a problem.