By Ian G. Wilson
For readers who feel a little intimidated by the length and complexity of the novels of P. D. James, my seasonal gift is The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories—all the best features of James’s mysteries wrapped up in a small package. Short and sweet might be one way of describing the tales in this book, though there is nothing sweet about the murders that take place in them, only the satisfying investigation and resolution of the crimes.
The book consists of four short stories which were written by James for magazine publication at Christmastimes past, and because of this, most of them have a holiday theme. It seems even as masterful a crime writer as P. D. James couldn’t resist the opportunity to pen a Christmas story, and in doing so she is following in the tradition of her countrywomen Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. These are not cute “who killed the coffeeshop Santa” morsels, with recipes for peppermint lattes and iced sugar cookies at the end. No, these are serious and sometimes grim tales that happen to take place on Christmas, and decked out with a few of the trimmings of the season, as can be guessed from the title of the collection.
“The Mistletoe Murder” is one of the best pieces, describing Christmas at an old country house during World War II. Here we get to see a stark holiday, with just four celebrants. The components of daily life during one of Great Britain’s darkest periods, such as blackout curtains, lack of church bells, and the fact that most of the people at the house are connected in some way to the armed forces, lay a heavy atmosphere over the party. There is a strong sense of doing without; the Christmas presents are mostly preowned, and the ones that aren’t are basic food items and alcohol lifted from military stores. From the start, readers get a sense of the depressed atmosphere that fell over the country in those days:
“I was eighteen when it happened, a young war-widow; my husband was killed two weeks after our marriage, one of the first RAF pilots to be shot down in single combat. I had joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, partly because I had convinced myself it would have pleased him, but primarily out of the need to assuage grief by a new life, new responsibilities.
“It didn’t work. Bereavement is like a serious illness. One dies or one survives, and the medicine is time, not a change of scene. I went through my preliminary training in a mood of grim determination to see it through, but when my grandmother’s invitation came, just six weeks before Christmas, I accepted with relief. It solved a problem for me. I was an only child and my father, a doctor, had volunteered as a middle-aged recruit to the Royal Army Medical Corps; my mother had taken herself off to America. A number of school friends, some also in the Forces, wrote inviting me for Christmas, but I couldn’t face even the subdued festivities of wartime and feared that I should be a skeleton at their family feast.”
The murder itself is a bashing over the head, not something that raises eyebrows much these days, but the solution to the crime is devilishly clever and, because of the shortness of the piece, comes together in a quick, surprising finish. It is only after you have read “The Mistletoe Murder” that you realize just how carefully crafted the story is, with every detail of relevance to the denouement.
The other stories in the book are not quite as atmospheric, but are equally clever in their resolutions. “A Very Commonplace Murder” concerns a voyeur and his relationship with the couple he is spying on; you don’t realize it’s actually a mystery until the end of the story. The other two pieces, “The Boxdale Inheritance” and “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” both feature Adam Dalgliesh, James’s famous police detective/poet. “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” shows a rare humorous side to both Dalgliesh and P. D. James, as the detective points out precisely twelve pieces of evidence which lead to the perpetrator of a bizarre murder, in which the victim is found in bed with holly in his top buttonhole, a paper cracker crown on his head, and a large piece of Christmas pudding stuffed in his mouth.
In her preface, James sets forth the difficulties of writing a good short story:
“Although most of my own work has been as a novelist, I have greatly enjoyed the challenge of the short story. Much has to be achieved with limited means. There is not space for long and detailed descriptions of place, but the setting must still come alive for the reader. Characterization is as important as in the novel, but the essentials of personality must be established with an economy of words. The plot must be strong but not too complex, and the denouement, to which every sentence of the narrative should inexorably lead must surprise the reader but not leave him feeling cheated. All should command the most ingenious element of the short story: the shock of surprise. The good short story is accordingly difficult to write well, but in this busy age it can provide one of the most satisfactory reading experiences.”
And I think that sums up my feelings about the pieces in The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories: surprise and satisfaction, with perhaps a tinge of sadness that there weren’t a few more works included. I recommend it highly for holiday reading.
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford in 1920. She spent much of her life as a civil servant in various branches of the British Government, but is chiefly known for her many detective novels, including Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), Death of an Expert Witness (1977), The Murder Room (2003), and The Lighthouse (2005). She won many awards for her work, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and several Crime Writers of America “Dagger” awards. She was made Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.
P. D. James died in 2014, but this collection was published by Knopf in 2016. It is available at Greenville Public Library.