A seasonal frisson

© C A Lovegrove

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
by P D James,
foreword by Val McDermid (2016).
Faber & Faber 2017 (2016)

[W]hen it happened to the newly promoted Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers of an upmarket weekly magazine.

‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’

This collection of four short stories, some almost novelettes, can be read any time of year even if three of the pieces are set around a Christmas gone wrong. Spanning three decades of the author’s creativity, they were first published in newspapers (the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times), in a collection (Detection Club Anthology) or independently (by a certain Clive Irving, who I assume is the journalist and author of that name).

Though ‘The Mistletoe Murder’ had already been in the author’s 2001 Murder in Triplicate collection, having the quartet of tales brought together in one volume — and thus no longer ephemeral — is as much a treat as it’s to have a masterclass in the variety of ways classic crime fiction can be proffered up. While each is very individual the tales as a whole exhibit some commonalities, such as either being based in a country house, or having cases investigated by Adam Dalgliesh, or describing victims being murdered in novel ways.

We have, as introductions to the quartet, two additional treats, a Foreword by fellow crime writer Val McDermid and, from 2001, a Preface by James herself. While not essential to an enjoyment of the main courses they do serve as welcome apéritifs (or, if one prefers, later digestifs); and the collection as a whole gains extra piquancy from being a posthumous publication, the author having died in 2014.

Sutton Hoo House, staircase © C A Lovegrove

The order they appear in the present publication is, first, the title piece ‘The Mistletoe Murder’ (1995), then ‘A Very Commonplace Murder’ (1969), ‘The Boxdale Inheritance’ (1979) and, to end with, ‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’ (1996). With Christmas stories bookending the collection the intention clearly was to appeal to a market which favoured mysteries at this particular season, and the Faber editions naturally feature designs incorporating charming winter scenes by printmaker Angela Harding (including, as well as a snowy landscape for background, some mistletoe in the foreground).

I shall start with ‘A Very Commonplace Murder’, the earliest in date and the most anomalous of this set; it’s also the creepiest as it involves a voyeur called Ernest Gabriel who, sixteen years before, “had watched Denis Speller and Eileen Morrisey play out their commonplace little tragedy to its end.” The teenage Denis is accused of brutally murdering his lover Mrs Morrisey, and Gabriel attends the trial, not admitting he was a witness to their liaisons. As a serving magistrate the author will have been familiar with court procedure and the language of judge and counsel reproduced here. I also detect subtle echoes of Shakespearean tragedy, but with a twist: unlike Polonius spying from behind the arras (“How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!”) Gabriel doesn’t die, but sticky ends seem to be in store for the Hamlet and Gertrude figures, and the mention of a bare bodkin virtually confirms the skewed parallels with Hamlet.

‘The Boxdale Inheritance’ features Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh taking up a notional ‘cold case’ from decades before on behalf of the aged Canon Hubert Boxdale: the worthy cleric is in line for a sizeable legacy which he is reluctant to receive because he believes it ‘tainted’ by its association with an acquitted murderer. Though the Canon was barely four years old at the time of the murder his scruples concerning the 1902 trial result make him reluctant to receive the £50,000 even though in the late 1970s that would have been a very welcome sum. So begins a clever but ultimately sad mystery for Dalgliesh to solve in his spare time, involving difficult interviews and even a visit to the soon-to-be-demolished Colebrook Croft House in the Hampshire countryside near Winchester. I have to admit I didn’t anticipate the truth, so expertly deduced by Dalgliesh, of what really happened at that fateful family Christmas gathering, in the year of Queen Victoria’s death.

As in the story of the Boxdale case, ‘The Mistletoe Muder’ takes place at a family gathering at Christmas, this time in 1940 at Stutleigh Manor, during blackout conditions because of the war. The author almost indulges in a spot of humorous metafiction here because at the very start she writes

One of the minor hazards of being a bestselling novelist is the ubiquitous question, ‘And have you ever been personally involved with a real-life murder investigation?’; a question occasionally asked with a look and tone which suggest that the Murder Squad of the Metropolitan Police might with advantage dig up my back garden.

A singularly unpleasant and pecuniary person is violently murdered. The young widow who is the narrator is as baffled as the police are by how and why the victim meets their end in the library as Christmas Day turns into Boxing Day. She tries to reconstruct events according to (as we surmise) the three principles of motive, opportunity and means, and she has also to struggle with her scruples regarding telling what she knows. Only in the final pages do all the clues at last fall into place.

A final self-referential touch also attaches to the last story, ‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’, and here we also note James’s propensity for black humour. Both hers and Val McDermid’s introductions refer to what we know as the Golden Age of crime fiction, and we know that James is seen as a recent exponent following in that classic tradition. McDermid notes that the author’s “love for the work of her predecessors is evident in this collection of her short stories: she picks the pockets of the mechanics of Golden Age plotting; Agatha Christie is referenced several times; and there are knowing nods to the conventions of traditional ‘cosy’ mystery stories.” And all that’s particularly the case with this last offering which features Dalgliesh near the start of his career as a detective.

Sergeant Dalgliesh is heading to spend Christmas at his aunt’s cottage “on the Suffolk coast” (probably near Southwold where James herself lived for many years: the fictional Wivenhaven is possibly Walberswick). However Adam is waylaid by a stranger called Helmut lurching out of the snow to tell him that his uncle has committed suicide at Harkerville Hall. So begins an involved murder case, another Jamesian cosy mystery with a deliberately alliterative title. It won’t surprise you to know that it ends with Dalgliesh declaring, “My dear Aunt Jane, I don’t think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.” And so it is indeed.

It seems perverse to gain enjoyment from premeditated murders but that’s the nature of crime fiction, and there’s definitely enjoyment to be had here.

Sutton Hoo House entrance © C A Lovegrove

A post in my Library of Brief Narratives;
No 20 of my 15 Books of Summer

22 thoughts on “A seasonal frisson

  1. Sounds like a wonderful collection–as you predicted, I too, am attracted by the Christmas themed mysteries. I have read a little James before, a couple of Dagleish books and one with Cordelia Grey and while I did enjoy them, I still felt her puzzles were not at par with Christie. Still, this is a volume I’d be interested in picking up.


  2. Nothing like a Christmas murder – why ever do we find these grizzly themes so enticing at such a time? (Rhetorical 😀) The only P D James I’ve read is Death Comes to Pemberley and I was very disappointed in her writing style. Of course, that was published at the end of her life and since then I’ve wanted to read more from other points in her writing career to establish whether it’s just that book or James’ style in general that doesn’t work for me. This sounds like an ideal way to find out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Death Comes to Pemberley was a novel of two halves for me, the first half intriguingly setting up the mystery, the second becoming very moribund in its dry courtroom delivery. Her speculative Children of Men was better but oddly old-fashioned for a supposedly contemporary novel. Best I thought was the co-authored The Maul and the Pear Tree, a forensic examination of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, a notorious crime spree in the London of the early 19th-century. If you’re after an intro to her crime fiction this may well be it!

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  3. This sounds a great collection, Chris. The only book I’ve read by P D James so far is Death Comes to Pemberley, which wasn’t a great introduction. Maybe I’d fare better with this collection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s probably more representative of what she’s best known for, while Death in Pemberley felt more like an experiment which fell a bit flat; it was dramatised for tv and felt equally uneven (despite the presence of the likes of Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goose, Matthew Rhys, Trevor Eve and Jenna Coleman).

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      1. I found the book irritating, but enjoyed the dramatisation in a camp way – it was hilariously over-egged! I liked the Adam Dalgliesh tv series, but somehow haven’t got round to reading the books.

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    1. I believe many in the know rate Ruth Rendell higher than James for psychological depth, but as short brain teasers these four tales are enjoyable, especially for their Yuletide settings (even if rather ‘cruel-tide’!).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree: additionally, I pounced on this book seeing that it referenced Aunt Jane’s Suffolk as we’d recently holidayed in Southwold where James herself had lived, and ‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’ for all its tongue-in-cheek narrative archness certainly conjured up memories of the area with references to Aunt Jane’s cottage (doubtless faced with flint), views of the North Sea and isolated mansions (hence the images of Sutton Hoo House which I posted here).

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll look out for that, thanks! Maybe it’ll be like when we both read Christie’s Evil Under the Sun and And There Were None when holidaying in Devon by Burgh Island, on which both novels were based.

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