Mistletoe Mysteries: Some Radical Rubbish

I have a lot of problems with the term ‘cozy crime’ (in fact, I think that, as a subgenre, it doesn’t exist). But it does highlight one of the most widely-acknowledged paradoxes in genre fiction. Some of the most conservative, complacent ‘easy reading’ around, the kind that people read to escape from the grim realities of life, concerns murder, violence, and deception. In fact, as Cora Kaplan has acknowledged, a ‘traditional’

mystery novel, set in a closed community, suggests the opposite of security: it presents a society that is ‘hardly […] at peace with itself.’ I’d like to take this a little

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“I’ve finished my Christmassy murder story” … “That’s great, Francis, what are you calling it?” … “Oh, crap. I can’t think of a title. Just bung anything with MURDER and CHRISTMAS on the cover. Like, Murder for Christmas but less lame.” … “Okay. Sorted.”

further and think about why the so-called ‘coziness’ of some crime fiction is accentuated in Christmas publications.

One January, when I was about twelve, a dinner lady at school gave me a rather imposingly glossy book. ‘I don’t need this any more,’ she said. It was called Murder for Christmas (not the same title as the novel opposite) and was some sort of book club anthology. I kept it aside and read it in stages at some unseasonal time, because I loved — and still love — crime and mystery fiction. There were some great names in there, but the stories felt a little lacklustre with ephemeral plots, barely developed characters, and often sloppy editing. The next year, it happened again: Murder and Mistletoe, I think, and my reaction was the same. Christmas anthologies sell very well, and Martin Edwards has produced a second one for the British Library this year, loosely focussed on the golden age. Every year, it’s crime writers who are asked to provide festive tales for newspapers and magazines. I remember, again from childhood, buying a copy of the Radio Times for a story by Ian Rankin (‘Saint Nicked’) and, once again, being disappointed. I blame these experiences for my general hostility to short stories.

Of course, now I know that publications commissioning Christmas stories tend to have very tight deadlines and stricter word counts than usual. There’s an onus on the author to enthuse their writing with festive fun, although the story won’t usually be written much later than October. There’s also an extremely short time frame between commission and submission, and a Christmas deadline is one that can’t be fudged. The author simply doesn’t have time to come up with a substantial or even interesting new plot, and because it has to be Christmassy (and probably tamer than their other stuff), they’re unlikely to have any ideas for masterpieces lying around that will be suitable. By and large, people don’t care: a bit of Christmas fluff will do. Of course, it’s different with novels, but I have found that Christmas mysteries, whatever their form, tend to be less interesting than non-Christmas mysteries.

Naturally, Agatha Christie never compromised on quality (at least, not until she decided that Passenger to Frankfurt was a good idea). Her two Christmas crime offerings take the form of a 1939 novel, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, and a short-story-turned-novella, now known as The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (the version we know, 1960). Both have trademark ingenious and involved plots, with characters as compelling as any she created. But both are also imbued with a spirit of manufactured drunkenness. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is full of jokes, especially around Poirot’s moustache, which becomes a plot point, and, inevitably, sex. The Christmas Pudding turns out to be a murder mystery without a murder, as the whole thing is explained away with festive goodwill as a practical joke on the detective’s part. This wouldn’t usually be allowed.

Lesser writers don’t even try. The titles  of Christmas mystery novels are enough to tell you to steer clear: Plum Pudding Murder, Kissing Christmas Goodbye, and The Twelve Deaths of Christmas. To be fair, the author of that last one has also penned Murder at the Cat Show and The Cat Who Wasn’t a Dog. Of these, I should point out that I’ve only read The Twelve Deaths of Christmas. I didn’t finish it keen to get mixed up in cats and homicide.

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Oh, you thought I put all the worst titles in the body of the text?

If you’re still with me, you don’t mind my taking a bit of fun waaaay to seriously. Remember, my proudest hour was when the  Daily Mail community declared a collaborative research project I worked on the labour of ‘loons with too much time on their hands out to ruin Agatha for the rest of us.’ It’s nice being part of an evil conspiracy whose sole aim is to sap joy out of normal people’s lives and maybe even trick them into thinking. So, let’s get really serious.

Walter Benjamin called detective fiction ‘the numbing of one fear by the other’; the creation of artificial tension and apprehension, which we know are artificial and explainable, in order to make the real problems in our lives more palatable. The best crime writers take stock of this idea and react to it: Raymond Chandler tried to reject the artifice while Agatha Christie embraced it, and even joked about it repeatedly (did you know that Miss Marple read Dashiell Hammett?). Dorothy L. Sayers put all the clues in one short story in the form of a cryptic crossword. Most recently, Anthony Horowitz’s The Magpie Murders is extremely metatextual, with murders inside and outside of  a novel-within-a-novel, and the clues and investigations of each case overlapping, often revolving around wordplay.

Precisely because they are more formulaic and apparently less substantial than usual, it’s my belief that detective novels and stories indulge unique levels of self-referentiality and self-parody at Christmas: authors will chuck in easy gags, or have their detective act completely out of character: Poirot mocking up a murder scene to frighten children, Rebus Christmas shopping in Glasgow,  or Sherlock Holmes making not one but three jokes in ‘The Blue Carbuncle’. This has the effect of inviting the reader to view the literary world — and any shortcomings of plot — as essentially artificial; to think of the world of crime fiction and the world of Christmas as two worlds we’re au fait with and which don’t naturally collide: like watching your children (not like watching someone else’s children) in a school play: it has to be done, it’s never going to be done well, so it might as well be funny and endearing and you’re happy to embrace its not-quite-right-ness.

On the other hand, of course, Christmas crime stories will be more archetypical than normal; a writer who usually writes about the gritty streets might suddenly put their characters in a country house. Our hero might be surrounded by family we never

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“I like these very tight trousers young men were nowadays. It looks so smart, only of course it does accentuate knock knees” (Agatha Christie, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, 1960)

knew they possessed. Everything might become extremely domestic because, traditionally, our Christmases our domestic. We will open these books or magazines by the fire, which is never normally lit, while making small talk to family members we neglect to call, watching television that makes us feel nauseous and ignoring any divorces-in-progress. Because it’s traditional. When an inherently conservative literary form makes itself even more conservative, appealing to cringey, nationalistic rituals, there’s a strong possibility that that conservatism takes on elements of self-parody. As cozy crime takes brutal incidents and paradoxically presents itself as comforting, family gatherings for Christmas are promoted in popular culture as tranquil and rejuvenating, but the reality is usually fraught. Like Christmas, conventional whodunits put clashing egos in close proximity for a limited stretch of time. Everything is strained at Christmas, and when a Christmas murder mystery advertises its formula by being often outrageously under-written, it exposes this strain and these tensions.

For a while now, radical theorists have vehemently opposed the nuclear family, something that Lee Edelman and others think we should rally against. He opposes the politically expedient image of the innocent child: and perhaps there no one is greater used in the service of that rhetorical device than the man whose birthday we inaccurately mark on 25 December. For its commercial success, Christmas depends on a successful campaign of cultural amnesia around the inefficacy of the nuclear ideal, and when the fiction we read makes itself extra-trivial, it advertises its own critical, intellectual strength. It shows us that the morality we invest in, the morality that gives us black and white, right and wrong, the morality that crime fiction should undermine but which Christmas crime has to uphold, simply doesn’t exist.

To quote our favourite Belgian detective: ‘There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy, honourable hypocrisy, hypocrisy undertaken pour le bon motif, c’est entendu, but nevertheless hypocrisy!’

 

LIST OF REFERENCES

Babson, Marion. The Cat who Wasn’t a Dog. St Martin’s Press, 2004.

Babson, Marion. Murder at the Cat Show. Chivers, 1972.

Babson, Marion. The Twelve Deaths of Christmas. Chivers, 1979

Beaton, M.C. Kissing Christmas Goodbye. Constable and Robinson, 2007.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘Detective Novels, on Tour’ [1930]. The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness. Verso, 2016.

Chandler, Raymond. ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ [1950]. University of Texas. http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html

Christie, Agatha. ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrees. Collins, 1960.

Christie, Agatha. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Collins, 1939.

Christie, Agatha. A Murder is Announced. Collins, 1950.

Christie, Agatha. Passenger to Frankfurt. Collins, 1970.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. Strand Magazine, January 1892.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 2004.

Fluke, Joanne. Plum Pudding Murder. Kensington, 2016.

Kaplan, Cora. ‘Queens of Crime: The Golden Age of Crime Writing’. M Joannou (ed), The History of British Women’s Writing, 1920-1960. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Rankin, Ian. ‘Saint Nicked’. Radio Times, December 2003.

…. And some glossy anthologies that I can’t quite remember.

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4 thoughts on “Mistletoe Mysteries: Some Radical Rubbish

  1. Interesting piece, certainly got me thinking! Having read The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (2013), ed. By Otto Penzler I don’t think it is entirely accurate to say that Christmas mysteries are ‘probably tamer than [authors’] other stuff,’ as there are some very grim and dark stories in there. One which sticks in my mind is one by Josephine Bell who has an old aged pensioner’s home burgled and her dying due to exposure. However, thankfully not all the stories in the collection are like that otherwise it would make for very depressing reading. There are some quite funny and clever ones as well, by writers such as Cyril Hare, if I remember rightly. Equally I probably wouldn’t agree with Christmas mysteries necessarily being ‘less interesting than non-Christmas mysteries.’ Then again it depends on which ones you have been reading I guess and my viewpoint may be slightly influenced by me giving me on a non-Christmas mystery this afternoon, due to severe boredom.

    I think Christmas set mysteries can be done well if they are comic in style such as with Constance and Gwenyth Little’s The Black Headed Pins (1938) and Joan Coggins’ Who Killed the Curate (1944) and Dancing with Death (1947). Mystery in White (1937) by J Jefferson Farjeon is also a good read – interesting fusion of thriller and detective fiction and arguably plays around with the country house party motif. I also think that Christmas country house parties, although archetypical perhaps can be used for this very reason to look at the state of the nation. I’ve noticed this a lot in post-WW2 country house mysteries, where these parties show up how times have changed in terms of class, employment and finances and what this means for the characters. Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951) is a good example of one set at Christmas. I was glad to see Horowitz’s novel got a mention as I really enjoyed reading it this year. What did you make of it?

    1. Thanks, Kate. Now I feel embarrassingly under-read! Mystery in White is of course Brilliant. I should have mentioned it.

      Unfortunately I can never get on with Horowitz’s writing. It reads like children’s fiction. His twists are always nicked from better writers and used to no particular effect (case in point, the letter device in Magpie stolen from Edgware. Christie used it in a fascinating way, he used it as a clue that could have been any clue). I’ve also never ever failed to see a twist/revelation coming a mile off. And the prose is just so smug and twee and ‘written down’ that I genuinely don’t know how anyone can stomach it.

      1. haha so you’re quite the fan of Horowitz then? I’ve only read The Magpie Murders of his. I don’t mind people borrowing twists or tropes from other writers as long as they are done well. Hadn’t twigged the letter device though, probably need to re-read LED, along with loads of other Christies.
        One book which might be of interest to you in your academic work is Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery (1907). Won’t give any info on the plot as the mystery side of it is pretty easy to solve by 40 pages in. However, given your expertise in gender/sexuality/queer theories this book might interest you in the fluid way it presents gender and sexuality, especially considering how early it was published.

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