Today's guest blogger, Katherine Hall Page, is a three-time Agatha Award winner. The Body in the Sleigh is the 18th book in the Faith Fairchild series. Please join me in welcoming Katherine to Meritorious Mysteries.
I’ve just had the pleasure of doing three events here in the Boston area with the incomparable Carolyn Hart. Both of our latest books, The Body in the Sleigh and Merry, Merry Ghost are Christmas mysteries from Wm. Morrow. They went on sale the same day in late October with terrific l’heure bleue covers by James L. Iacobelli. Life sometimes offers these pleasurable coincidences. The two books complement each other and in many ways Carolyn and I do too. She’s a treasured friend, and I’m also a long-time fan—especially of this new series. Bailey Ruth Raeburn is my kind of ghost and takes me back to Noel Coward’s play, "Blithe Spirit" and Thorne Smith’s book, Topper, as well as the movie and TV series.
Anyway, Carolyn and I had great fun and each event had its own distinct personality. The questions were different—at one we were asked if we had ever written a mystery without a corpse! I learned all sorts of new things about Carolyn (she’s a huge baseball fan, an avid tennis player and has a fascinating family background that includes a true South Carolina gentlewoman). The one constant at each event was our descriptions of the message we convey in these two books—order will be restored at the end, triumphing over chaos. Light conquers darkness, especially during the times we need it most.
More than a year ago, there must have been something in the air currents that travel back and forth between Oklahoma and Massachusetts. Neither of us knew the other was writing a Christmas mystery; nor that the plot would center on an abandoned child—a child who ultimately finds a safe haven. The first line of my book is: “The Christmas Eve sky was filled with stars the night Mary Bethany found a baby in her barn.” And off we go to follow this Mary’s journey, with Faith Fairchild at her side, along with another odyssey involving two young people on the Maine island where the story is set. Santa arrives on a lobster boat and there’s plenty of Christmas cheer, but as Harlan Coben said about the book, “ Not only is The Body in the Sleigh a gripping whodunit but it’s a classic tale of hope.” (Harlan and I hail from the same town in New Jersey-yay!)
I’ve dedicated the book to librarians and include the names of some who have been very important to me in my life. I’ve also included an Author’s Note at the end about libraries and librarians. It’s an appreciation long overdue. The access to information we have and the role librarians play in our communities is unequalled anywhere in the world.
And now to Christmas. The following is a sample of some of my favorite Christmas mysteries from the past (roughly 1933-1998) and I would love to hear from you about yours, old and/or new ones! My best wishes to all for the holidays and many thanks to Molly for her wonderful blog.
“The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L. Sayers was published in Great Britain by Gollancz in 1933 in the collection, Hangman’s Holiday, which included three additional Lord Peter Wimsey stories, six featuring Montague Egg, and two others. In this tale, Lord Peter is unmarried and has been invited to spend Christmas at Sir Septimus Shale’s country house in Essex “in a touching spirit of unreasonable hope, on Margharita’s [Shale’s daughter] account.” Sir Septimus indulges his wife’s moderne tastes throughout the year, but puts his foot down at Christmas insisting on crackers, plum puddings, and games in the drawing room beneath the holly and mistletoe. It has been Sir Septimus’s custom to present Margharita with a priceless pearl on her Christmas Eve birthday each year and she now has twenty-one, enough to gleam “softly” on her “slender throat.” She takes the necklace off during a game of Dumb Crambo (a rhyme must be acted out silently, similar to charades) and it disappears. The denouement is a marvelous example of “Hidden in Plain Sight,” and provides Sayers with the opportunity to show off both Lord Peter’s ingenuity and theatricality. He arranges for the guests to tear down the Christmas greens and toss them in the fire—even the mistletoe, much to the horror of the culprit, a “man about town” who “speculated,” But the pearls with which he perhaps hoped to recoup some Madoff-type losses had, of course, been removed by Sayers’ sleuth. One straight pin had been enough to tip Lord Peter off that the waxy white flora had been joined by some less perishable cousins.
For Hercule Poirot the notion of an old-fashioned Christmas at Kings Lacey is a chilly one and he is only persuaded to retrieve a priceless ruby lost by “a young potentate-to-be” who was sowing some Western style wild oats by the assurance that the manor house has adequate central heating. “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” (changed to the unfortunate “Theft of the Royal Ruby” in the US) is the title story in the 1960 Crime Club edition, published only in the UK, also containing: “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest”, “The Underdog”, and “Four-and Twenty Blackbirds.” It is the sole collection in which both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple appear; these stories were published in other editions in the US. In an exuberant forward, Agatha Christie declares “This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection.’ I am the Chef!”
It was a Christie for Christmas and “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is dedicated to Christmas Past, the celebrations of her youth spent at Abney Hall in the north of England, when “Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions.” Oyster Soup, Turbot, Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey, Sirloin of Beef, Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle, and chocolates. “We never felt, nor were, sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!” In this homage, the proof is indeed in the pudding and there are some fun twists and turns for the reader. Hercule Poirot is, of course, never in doubt.
In Dancing With Death by Joan Coggin, Lady Lupin Hastings’ friend Duds Lethbridge is filled with nostalgia for the pre-war Christmases of her childhood as well and determines to do her best to replicate them with a Christmas week house party at Old Place, a modest manor house in Buckinghamshire. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the house party from Hell, especially after the hard-to-obtain liquor runs out and yes, there’s a body too. Duds summons her old friend, Loops, for help.
Dancing with Death was published in 1947, or 1949 according to some sources, by Hurst & Blackett and happily reissued, with the previous three Lady Lupin mysteries, by Rue Morgue Press in 2003. A review of the time aptly describes Coggin: “Here is a detective storyteller with a welcome sense of the ludicrous, or perhaps a humorous writer with a detective flair.” (The Field)
The quartet of mysteries, are apparently the only ones Coggin wrote; the first is Who Killed the Curate (1944); followed by The Mystery of Orchard House (1946); Why Did She Die? (1947), US title: Penelope Passes; and Dancing With Death. The books are addictive—an effervescent cocktail equal parts Nancy Mitford, E.M. Delafield, Gracie Allen, and Carole Lombard with a dash of Faith Fairchild (Lupin is a highly unlikely clerical spouse like Faith).
With strict rationing still in effect, there’s plenty of holly and ivy, but the Christmas pudding is concocted from dried eggs and beer. Hot water is in short supply. The guests, whom Duds has not seen since before the war, are a quarrelsome bunch and she’s regretting her Yuletide impulse, almost upon their arrival. The plot involves an inheritance, blackmail, and disappointed love, concluding with a car chase straight out of "Bullitt."
Ngaio Marsh has one of the best Christmas titles—Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)—and best Yuletide opening lines—“On the 25th of December at 7:30 A.M. Mr. Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set.” (“Death on the Air”-1947).
In the novel, Tied Up in Tinsel, detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s artist wife Troy is painting a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman, owner of Halberds Manor. With her husband out of the country and unlikely to return home in time for Christmas, Troy accepts Hilary’s invitation to stay on at Halberds for the holiday, joining a small house party that includes his fiancée, Cressida. Halbers is being exquisitely restored and filled with tasteful and precious objets d’arte. Breathtakingly beautiful, Cressida will be the jewel in the crown. Halberds is also filled with another sort of collection—murderers. Single-job men. They are Hilary’s solution to the servant problem since Halberds is so isolated that more conventional help has been impossible to find. What ensues is a marvelously funny satire with Gothic, Victorian, and even Druidical overtones. It really should have been filmed with Alec Guinness, Terry Thomas, and especially Alastair Sim. Alleyn returns early to find himself in the unusual position of interviewing his own wife in a homicide investigation. And despite an earlier mortal impulse, this time the butler did not do it.
British mystery writers do such ingenious things with wirelesses. One is reminded of Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. Marsh’s short story “Death on the Air” is satisfying not only because of its intricate locked room plot, but also for her choice of victim—a truly horrible, despot who is crushing the life from his family and employees, especially his secretary Richard Hislop. The corpse could well have been tied up in tinsel and placed beneath the tree to the delight of all. Even the murderer, the doctor who calls in his old friend Roderick Alleyn, discreet and “a gentleman” to spare the family, is portrayed sympathetically, confessing in a final note, “ I’m sorry, Alleyn. I think you knew, didn’t you? I’ve bungled the whole game, but if you will be a supersleuth…”
In 1982, Mysterious Press issued two wonderful volumes of Murder For Christmas, edited by Thomas Godfrey notable for the trove of short stories, but almost equally for the Gahan Wilson illustrations and covers—a very unsaintly Saint Nick wrenching a diamond ring from the finger of a screaming young woman, as a monkish looking man face down in the plum pudding with a carving knife in his back sits at Santa’s side. Rex Stout’s “Christmas Party” is in Volume II. It was originally published in Collier’s as “The Christmas Party Murder” in 1957 and published the following year by Viking in And Four to Go, with “Murder is No Joke” and two other holiday short stories, “Easter Parade” and “Fourth of July”. Thomas Godfrey’s introduction describes the setting as “that most barbaric of all holiday institutions, the office Christmas party.” He sums up the plot: “Wolfe stews, Archie engages, orchids bloom and a good time will be had by all.” “Engages” refers to Archie’s role as a sham suitor, but that role is usurped by Nero Wolfe dressed up as Santa Claus—needing no padding— the prime suspect so far as the police are concerned.
Valerie Wolzien has written a number of holiday mysteries, (All Hallows’ Eve (Ballantine, 1992), A Star-Spangled Murder ( Fawcett, 1993), Deck The Halls with Murder (Ballantine, 1998), but the two Susan Henshaw Christmas mysteries, We Wish You A Merry Murder (Fawcett, 1991) and ‘Tis The Season To Be Murdered (Fawcett, 1994) will strike a resounding chord with everyone who has ever tried to achieve the impossible: a stress-free, serene holiday. They are a tribute to individuals trying to squeeze in shopping for the perfect gift with cookie exchanges, reproducing Chartres in gingerbread, and mediating between warring relatives, all of whom seem to be staying at one’s house somehow. When the UPS man delivers an additional parcel that he’s found propped up outside the door, it’s a relief for Susan to have something as relatively straightforward as a corpse with which to deal.
The last work, Jane Langton’s The Shortest Day Murder at the Revels draws upon a large cast, literally. Since 1971, the Christmas Revels, a festival of dance and drama that draws on ancient rituals from all over the world to drive the dark away, has been performed at Sanders Theatre in Harvard’s Memorial Hall. It is not Professor Homer Kelly’s thing at all he tells his enthusiastic wife, Mary—“Oh God…Morris dancers. All this folksy stuff, Ph.D.s and computer scientists pretending to be peasants.” Despite his initial skepticism, he becomes captivated by “this fanciful Cambridge version of the Middle Ages. It was nice, it was the Très Riches Heures come to life, enhanced by the mystic Victorian woodwork of Memorial Hall…"
First one death, then another. Homer had dons a mask as part of the performance, which puts him on the spot to unmask the killer. Langton’s lovely poem-and-ink drawings illustrate her own très riches heures, filled with Christmas lore and plenty of wassail.
At every performance of the Christmas Revels, the Master of the Revels sings “The Lord of the Dance” as first the actors, then the audience rise, join hands, filling the aisles and streaming out into the Hall’s corridors:
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.
Similarly, all of these writers have led us in a Christmas romp, a merry dance of cheer and fear. What could be better?