On the surface, this sounds like a contradiction in terms. Who would ruin a merry Christmas with murder? Unfortunately, as every law enforcement officer and medical professional knows, the holidays produce more than their fair share of domestic violence. Expectations that are too high? Too many people together in a confined space? Early-onset cabin fever? Something to do with the shorter days and absence of light? Cold weather? The effect of the full moon? Who knows what causes it, but more people do harm to their nearest and dearest during this “joyful” season than just about any other time of year.
Is it any surprise, then, that a huge number of crime novels take place during Yuletide? What is perhaps more peculiar is that statistics show that these books sell better than non-holiday-themed mysteries. As a result, editors often ask their authors to write stories set at this time of year. I even had that stipulation written into one of my contracts. This seems to be especially prevalent among those of us who write traditional and/or cozy mysteries.
No, murder isn’t funny, but solving one can be fraught with humorous pitfalls for the amateur detective. The gathering together of relatives and friends also provides an opportunity for the series sleuth to resolve personal conflicts that have been building from book to book. That’s what happens, along with murder, mayhem, and mistletoe, in both of the new Christmas books out this year from Maine Crime Writers.
“When shadows from the past darken the present it’s up to Maggie, and Will’s Aunt Nettie, to bring the truth to light. Like champagne with breakfast on Christmas morning, the aptly named Shadows on a Maine Christmas is a special treat.”
Then there’s my current Christmas story, Ho-Ho-Homicide, in which Liss and Dan spend time on a Christmas tree farm in rural Maine and solve not one but several mysteries from the past. The action doesn’t actually take place on Christmas, but rather ends with a scene much like those I’ve been experiencing all this month—groups of people tromping out into the snow-covered fields to select and cut down the perfect Christmas tree.
The most complete list of Christmas mysteries comes from Janet Rudolph at Mystery Readers Journal and this year’s update starts here:
Don’t go there quite yet. First let me tell you about some of my personal favorites. There’s my own A Wee Christmas Homicide, of course, which revolves around Liss MacCrimmon’s discovery that the shops of Moosetookalook, Maine have the last remaining supplies of what has unexpectedly turned out to be “the” toy of the year, the Tiny Teddy. This book has been around for a few years, but it can still be found in paperback and electronic formats.
Donna Andrews, whose amateur sleuth is a blacksmith as well as a wife and mother, has two very funny mysteries set at Christmas. All of the titles in this series have birds in them, so it won’t surprise you to learn that the books in question are Six Geese A-Slaying and The Nightingale Before Christmas.
Rhys Bowen’s The Twelve Clues of Christmas is great fun. Set in the 1930s, it features Lady Georgie, 35th in line for the English throne and a magnet for trouble. Another historical series, set just a bit earlier (1923), is written by Carola Dunn and features Daisy Dalrymple as the amateur sleuth. In Mistletoe and Murder, Daisy faces a formidable foe—her mother! Dunn modeled her Cornwall estate, the fictional Brockdene, on the real Cothele, a sixteenth-century manor house I visited back in 2001.
In the oldie but goodie category, you can’t beat Charlotte MacLeod’s Rest You Merry, the first Peter Shandy mystery, in which Peter, sick of being pressured by neighbors to get with the program and decorate his house for the holidays, decides to do so with a vengeance and then leave town. Needless to say, his escape from Christmas doesn’t go quite as he planned.
Another gem is Joan Hess’s O Little Town of Maggody, an entry in her Arly Hanks series. This one involves the return of a native son, now a country music star, and the disappearance of his elderly aunt. And, of course, there is a cast of quirky characters designed to drive level-headed Arly, the chief of police in this small town, right around the bend!
Finally, for those of you who also read in other genres, let me suggest Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner, an anthology of paranormal short stories. I also recommend, for those who enjoy well-written tales of romance and adventure, Christmas Revels, a collection of five novellas by Mary Jo Putney.