Five Christmas Crime Reads

I know it’s only November but, in these time of lockdown, it can take a while to get ahold of books from libraries and independent booksellers, so I decided now was the right to share the five Christmas Crime books that will be helping me get that festive feeling this Christmas. After all, nothing says Christmas like a body in the snow.

All of these are first reads for me. Three are golden age mysteries and two are historical crime novels that have been published within the last year. I hope at least one of them will be something you’ll want to add to your Christmas stocking.

‘Shamus Dust’ by Janet Roger (2019)

‘Shamus Dust’ is a muscular noir thriller set in London in the Christmas of 1947 and starring Newman, an American private detective of the hard-boiled variety trying to make a living in a city where, as his former boss, an Australian put it:

Look, Newman, as far as the locals are concerned, we’re both colonials. The difference is my lot play cricket with them and all is forgiven. Your lot are the tired and huddled masses that rhyme tomato with Plato, and every living Limey thinks baseball is a game for girls. Can’t argue about the baseball, though.

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Two candles flaring at a Christmas crib. A nurse who steps inside a church to light them. A gunshot emptied in a man’s head in the creaking stillness before dawn, that the nurse says she didn’t hear. It’s 1947 in the snowbound, war-scarred City of London, where Pandora’s Box just got opened in the ruins, City Police has a vice killing on its hands, and a spooked councilor hires a shamus to help spare his blushes. Like the Buddha says, everything is connected. So it all can be explained. But that’s a little cryptic when you happen to be the shamus, and you’re standing over a corpse. 

‘Shamus Dust’ is very NOIR. You can hear every one of those capital letters hammering into each paragraph. Here’s an example of the style from the start of Chapter Two:

‘It wasn’t complicated. Not more than an early morning call from a City grandee, a nurse who came across her neighbor dead or dying before dawn on Christmas Day, and the dead neighbor’s latchkeys in my hand. That and the voice that always whispers in my ear, soft as telling a rosary, that for every reason I might think I have for mixing in a murder, there are ten better reasons to walk away. I crossed the angle of the court, fitted one of the keys in its lock and gave it a quarter turn. As for the voice that whispers, I hear it every time I step uninvited into an unlit room. The trick is not to let it start a conversation.’

The bio on Janet Roger’s website describes her as:

‘An historical fiction author, writing literary crime. She trained in archaeology, history and Eng. Lit. and has a special interest in the early Cold War.’

She also confesses to having fallen in love early with Raymond Chandler’s writing, mainly because his stories began

‘to seem incidental to the city, its moods and characters and speech patterns. What really mattered was a time, a place and the people you might run into there.’

I’m looking forward to her curating my visit back to a London that had been ripped up by war and hadn’t yet had the time to write itself a cosy future.

‘Thou Shell Of Death’ by Nicholas Blake (1936)

Nicholas Blake is the name under which the poet, Cecil Day-Lewis earned his living by writing detective novels, all but four of which featured amateur detective Nigel Strangeways. 

I read his debut novel, ‘A Question Of Proof’ last year and was more impressed by the language, the quirkiness of the Nigel Strangeways’ character and the skilful rendition of the atmosphere of a minor Public School in the years after World War II than I was with the plot.

This year, I read the fourth Strangeways novel, ‘The Beast Must Die’ and found that the quality of the plot had caught up with the quality of the writing and produced an excellent mystery.

So, now I’m going to read the second Strangeways novel which, of course, is set a Christmas.

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Fergus O’Brien, a legendary World War One flying ace with several skeletons hidden in his closet, receives a series of mocking letters predicting that he will be murdered on Boxing Day.

Undaunted, O’Brien throws a Christmas party, inviting everyone who could be suspected of making the threats, along with private detective Nigel Strangeways. But despite Nigel’s presence, the former pilot is found dead, just as predicted, and Nigel is left to aid the local police in their investigation while trying to ignore his growing attraction to one of the other guests – and suspects – explorer Georgina Cavendish.

One word of warning: don’t bother with the audiobook version. I tried to listen to the same narrator when I read the last book and ended up sending the audiobook back and carrying on with the ebook version.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)

John Banville (as everybody but me seems to have known) is an Irish writer of note, a Booker Prize Winner, aKafka Prize winner and the author of fourteen novels that never made it into my TBR pile.

Sadly, I only found out who he was after I’d bought ‘Snow’. So why did I buy it? Well, because it has a killer premise, it seems like an accessible crime novel that’s also the first in a series and it has a gorgeous cover.

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

The body is in the library,’ Colonel Osborne said. ‘Come this way.’

Following the discovery of the corpse of a highly respected parish priest at Ballyglass House – the Co. Wexford family seat of the aristocratic, secretive Osborne family – Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called in from Dublin to investigate.

Strafford faces obstruction from all angles, but carries on determinedly in his pursuit of the murderer. However, as the snow continues to fall over this ever-expanding mystery, the people of Ballyglass are equally determined to keep their secrets.

When I looked up who had written this kind of book and learned who John Banville is, my expectations of the book went up. Banville is known as a straight-talking man. Born in 1945, he has at least some memory of Ireland in 1957 and certainly recalls how Ireland was when the Catholic Church held it in its grip.

I’m expecting more than a simple mystery here. Having a protestant Detective Inspector from Dublin investigating the death of a Catholic priest in Wexford whose body is in the library of the wealthy, Protestant, landlord is throwing petrol on the fire. Then there’s that ‘The body is in the library’ line that hints that Banville is not going to be above taking a dig at the genre as he writes.

So, I have high hopes of this one.

‘Death Comes At Christmas’ by Gladys Mitchell (1936)

My experience of Gladys Mitchel’s Mrs Bradley novels has been mixed. The first two I tried didn’t work for me but that left with another sixty-four Mrs Bradley novels to samele.

Last year I finally struck gold with the twenty-third Mrs Bradley novel ‘Murder in the Snow: A Cotswold Christmas Mystery’.

So I’m going to follow through with another Christmas mystery ‘Death Comes At Christmas’.

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

It is December and Mrs Bradley has left London behind for a relaxing visit to the Oxfordshire countryside.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a local solicitor is found dead by the river. Everyone believes that he suffered a heart attack – but Mrs Bradley is suspicious, and is soon investigating a series of disturbing clues.

As the frost thaws and spring begins, the inimitable detective must work fast if she is to protect the people close to her from a resourceful killer…

Oddly, when I look up the book under its original title ‘Dead Men’s Morris’, I get a slightly different summary:

‘A dead solicitor, a suspicious pig-farmer and a local ghost disturb Mrs Bradley’s holiday to Oxfordshire. Nothing is as it seems however, and the inimitable detective must work fast if she is to protect her nephew’s household from a resourceful killer.

So, a Christmas murder, a ghost, Morris Men, a suspicious pig farmer, lots of snow and the frankly intimidating Mrs Bradley. Sounds perfect for reading with a mince pie, a slice of Stilton and a glass of good Port.

‘An English Murder’ by Cyril Hare (1951)

When I read my first Cyril Hare’s novel ‘Tenant For Death’ earlier this year, I summarised my reaction as:

This is one of those curious books that could have been remarkable but misses by enough to make it only competent in the end.

I think the problem is that Hare undervalues the things that he’s good at and spends too much time on things he doesn’t do well.

I liked Hare’s writing and the way he described characters but the police procedural end of things didn’t work well.

I decided to try again with ‘An English Murder’ because:

  • it has a great cover and a memorable title,
  • it was written fourteen years and six novels later,
  • It’s set at Christmas and it was adapted from a radio play so the dialogue should be strong.

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

‘The snow is thick, the phone line is down, and no one is getting in or out of Warbeck Hall. With friends and family gathered round the fire, all should be set for a perfect Christmas, but as the bells chime midnight, a mysterious murder takes place. 

Who can be responsible? The scorned young lover? The lord’s passed-over cousin? The social climbing politician’s wife? The Czech history professor? The obsequious butler? And perhaps the real question is: can any of them survive long enough to tell the tale?’

So, a bunch of posh folks snowed in at an English country house with one person dead and the murderer still present AND it’s Christmas. How could that not be fun?

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