THere’s an annual discussion, online if not elsewhere, as to whether Die Hard, the 1988 Bruce-Willis-versus-European-baddies action movie, is a Christmas movie. It’s set during a Christmas party, after all. But every year, people argue that it can’t be a Christmas movie, I think for no other reason than the fact that it spills more blood than eggnog.
And yet I would say that Christmas and crime are not all that strange bedfellows. On the one hand, Christmas is that time of year during which families gather in close proximity, often in overly warm houses with bad weather threatening outside. Liquor flows and dusk comes early. It seems to me an occasion to murder.
In the golden age of detective fiction, most big-name authors attempted a Christmas-themed detective novel. And some are worth reading. But it’s not just closed room mystery practitioners who have inserted a Christmas spirit into a murderous story. There are some decent hard novels that address the subject as well. Christmas can be a lonely time, especially in the big city, and that can have unfortunate consequences.
So here’s my personal list of your favorite Christmas crime stories, and they’re all worth spending an evening with with a nice bottle of your favorite drink on hand. And by the way, Die Hard is indisputably a Christmas movie.
1. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man (1934)
It’s funny to think that this was the only Thin Man book Hammett wrote, despite the fact that he released a series of six films. Like the first classic movie that paired William Powell and Myrna Loy (a perfect Christmas watch), this book is set during the Christmas season in Manhattan. The enviable couple Nick and Nora Charles solve a murder while mixing drinks and exchanging jokes. Pure entertainment and a well-plotted police novel.
2. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie (1938)
Aside from the stories, this is the only Christie book explicitly set around Christmas time. And it’s good, with Poirot solving a very bloody murder that takes place on Christmas Eve in a country house. There’s a plethora of suspects, a plethora of clues, and as always, Christie comes up with a clever surprise in the final chapters.
3. The Corpse of the Snowman by Nicholas Blake (1941)
Yes actually is a body hidden inside a snowman. There’s also a farmhouse, sinister guests, an amateur detective, and plenty of Christmas touches. Nicholas Blake was the pen name for Cecil Day-Lewis, better known as a poet laureate (and Daniel’s father), but he was also a highly respected mystery writer, and this is a winter delight.
Four. A murder in English by Cyril Hare (1951)
In this highly entertaining country house mystery, Lord Warbeck gathers his family for one last Christmas in their ruined manor house. Like all good mysteries, there is both the familiar (a sinister butler, a winter storm lowering power lines) and the unknown that lurks within its pages.
5. Celia Fremlin’s long shadow (1975)
Despite winning the Edgar Award for his excellent novel The Hours Before Dawn, Fremlin is largely forgotten now. It’s a shame because his domestic thrillers are perfect examples of the genre, books that cleverly exploit the notion of domestic happiness. Here, a recent widow is harassed by a sinister phone call accusing her of murder, and also by a host of unwanted Christmas guests.
6. Scott Phillips’ Ice Harvest (2000)
My favorite Christmas crime novel (I also love the rare 2005 movie version starring John Cusack) is not for readers looking for privacy. Set in 1979, the novel traces a night in the life of a Wichita mob lawyer, a Christmas Eve during which he plans to elope with his boss’s money. It’s seedy, dark, and a lot of fun.
7. Money, money, money from Ed McBain (2001)
It’s not the best of the 87th Precinct novels, but almost any McBain book is worth reading. In this, it is Christmas in Isola (a Manhattan with a thin veil) and a murder leads to the discovery of a terrorist plot to bomb a theater. There are also some hilarious commentary from the publishing industry along the way, plus plenty of musings about the follies of human nature.
8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattooed by Stieg Larsson (2005)
While most of the narrative does not take place around Christmas time, a significant sequence towards the end of the book does, which is why I qualify this as a Christmas crime. It’s certainly a wintry novel, with journalist Mikael Blomkvist agreeing to investigate an unsolved case (figuratively and literally) on a remote island in wintry Sweden. With the help of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, they discover the sinister and puzzling truth.
9. A fatal grace from Louise Penny (2011)
Three Pines, the fictional Quebec city that is the setting for Penny’s mystery novels, is tailor-made for Christmas stories. This is the second in the Inspector Gamache series and the holiday setting is very well described. The opening line sets the murderous, festive tone: “If CC de Poitiers had known she was going to be murdered, she could have bought her husband, Richard a Christmas present.”
10. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James (2016)
James was often commissioned to write stories for Christmas. This slender collection contains four of them, including the main story, not only the best Christmas crime tale I’ve ever read, but also one of my favorite short crime stories. An elderly crime writer recalls the only time she was involved in an actual murder: a wartime vacation visit to her estranged grandmother. The story is as beautiful as it is macabre, like the season it inhabits.
Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson is published in paperback by Faber. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. His next novel, Every Vow You Break, will be published in March.
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