Three Books for Christmas

Although it has been years since I was in a cold country in Christmas, by the second half of December I begin to miss the cold and dark, the perfect weather for murder and ghosts. I begin to buy plum cake, brew more tea than usual, and start looking for Christmas mysteries. This year I got hold of three which I’d missed. I finished two on the long flights to Kolkata and back, but it took me till yesterday to get on with the third.

This was my introduction to Celia Fremlin (1914-2009). And what an introduction! The slow building of a claustrophobic sense of foreboding, of slowly losing control, the growing feeling that there is layer to the world below what is known, the mystery building before the murder, all done in limpid prose. It was the ideal book to read while sitting inside a silent aluminum tube, surrounded by masked strangers. In a genre as well explored as murder mysteries, it is hard to overturn expectations any more, but this book must have done it in 1975, when it was first published. I hadn’t read Celia Fremlin before; her first book won a Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1960, and was made into a TV movie for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, starring Gena Rowlands. I’m now looking forward to reading more of her books.

I had my eyes on this collection of stories written between 1969 and 1996 by P.D.James (1920-2014) since it was published in 2017, and was happy to pick it as one in my pandemic winter set. If you know P.D.James you know what to expect. Each story is a perfect set piece mystery, an intricate mechanism which clicks open at the end to show you how it was done. All four were commissioned, and like vintage Christmas mysteries, start with cold and snow outside, warmth and cheer indoors, before a cold murder creeps into the house. Two of the stories feature Adam Dalgleish. I was happy to read this on a flight, renewing my auld acquaintance with the Baroness James of Holland Park, one of the past Queens of Murder.

It seems difficult to top Quebec as a setting for a cold Christmas. The second book by Louise Penny (b 1958) was a welcome introduction to her series featuring the French-Canadian detective Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. This book had won an Agatha Award in 2007, the year of its publication, and started an unbroken run of wins for the series until Margaret Maron ended it in 2011. I took my time with this book because I liked reading about the cold fictional town of Three Pines, which was as much of a star invention as the detective. Louise Penny is not a Queen of Crime; she works well within the boundaries of the genre, and she writes a good cozy mystery.