Photo by D-Keine
Artillery Row Books

Murders for December

A cornucopia of killings for the Christmas season

A seasonal offering is provided by another anthology of Christmas crimes from the British Library Crime Classics, its fifth. Edited again by the superb Martin Edwards, Who Killed Father Christmas? and other seasonal mysteries (2023; £10.99) is not as good as its predecessors, in part because he has already used up the better possibilities. The first four should be read before this one. Nevertheless, there is much to offer in what is a wide-ranging collection, with classic writers such as John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes, favourites from the Crime Classics including J. Jefferson Farjeon and Anthony Gilbert, and writers who are more recent. Some of the pieces have never been reprinted better and appear from often inconspicuous sources. Vincent Cornier’s “Amongst Those Present Was Santa Claus” was published in the Huddersfield Examiner of 20 December 1952: theft at a Christmas party. The title piece, by Patricia Moyes, is witty and effective — one to savour. Catherine Aird’s “Gold, Frankincense, and Murder” is a superb account of a mince pie poisoner unmasked, whilst Anthony Gilbert’s “The Christmas Spirit” brings together the Ghost Story and Christmas crime. Frank Howel Evans’ “The Christmas Thief” is a less successful “Boys’ Own” style jape of 1911, whilst Will Scott’s “The Christmas Train” is a very slight Raffles-like piece. Garnett Radcliffe’s “On the Irish Mail” is a more successfully humorous take on Christmas deception.

Who Killed Father Christmas? and other seasonal mysteries, ed. Martin Edwards, (British Library Crime Classics, £10.99)

J. Jefferson Farjeon’s “Secrets in the Snow” works well, Glyn Daniel’s “Death at Christmas” is a successful ghost story, John Dickson Carr’s “Scotland Yard’s Christmas” is slight, Michael Gilbert’s “The Bird of Dawning” is a success of the unexpected, and Gerald Verner’s “The Grey Monk” demonstrates the truth of that adage, “I’ve yet to meet the ghost that uses a .32 calibre automatic”.

“Who Suspects the Postman” by Michael Innes is characteristically economical and with some fine observation: “The bleak thin light of a winter morning made the splendid rooms seem pretentious and uneasy.” One of the protagonists, Colonel Wain, “was having difficulty in making both ends meet”. As this is 1958, Wain had been “in the East”. As this is Innes, he is a friend of the Home Secretary who is over for a chat, Wain reflecting to his friend at the close: “one couldn’t belong to the same club as a fellow like that. We’ll have to resign ourselves.”

“Herlock Sholmes’ Christmas Case” is by Peter Todd, a pseudonym of Charles Hamilton, better known as Frank Richards, author of Billy Bunter. Government has not improved from Dickens’ Circumlocution Office: “Every official of that great Department is far above suspicion of being skilled in any manner whatsoever!” Ellis Peters’ “A Present for Ivo” provides a closing piece in the Boys Own style.

Debut novels are always worthy of note. As with many writers, personal experience is frequently coined. L.J. Shepherd, author of The Trials of Lila Dalton (Pushkin Vertigo, £16.99), is a Human Rights barrister, and her protagonist is launched into the midst of a murder trial with no memory of how she got there. The trial is held in a fictional dystopia, based indirectly on Ascension Island, in which the British try terrorists and other serious criminals. The book is a powerful work that truly grips with its multiple levels of mystery and uncertainty. The atmosphere is possibly too relentlessly grim, and the neo-Nazi component is overwritten, as can be the power of a state that is often more cock-up than conspiracy, but this is a great read by a powerful intellect. An extremely promising first novel that generally holds the imagination of the author this side of the ridiculous.

The Escape, Ruth Kelly (Pan, £8.99)

Jenny Hollander is an English writer who studied at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and worked for a decade in New York’s magazine world. Charlotte Colbert, the protagonist of her Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead (St Martins’s), is an English graduate of the fictional equivalent. She was involved there in a murder mystery before becoming a major player in the New York magazine world. Her memories, her prospects and increasingly her sanity are shattered as the mystery comes to new public attention. The novel is skilfully constructed with “Then” and “Now” narratives building up to provide the somewhat claustrophobic account of desire, friendship and ambition amongst a group that forms and then rifts. A good story, if you can take an interest in these overwritten, overwrought characters.

Mark McCrum’s Ghosted (Bloodhound, £9.99) starts brilliantly with Adam at a funeral, only to discover it is his, and he is a ghost. Although there is a gap in his memory, he is convinced he did not commit suicide. He sets out to use his ghostly capabilities and inherent ability to discover who killed him, a task complicated when the ghostly host swells as a result of additional deaths. Wonderfully written, it draws on a perceptive reading of a strand of English society, with some excellent settings — not least a séance. Witty and a great Xmas read, it whets my appetite to read more by McCrum.

Ruth Kelly’s The Escape (Pan, £8.99) launches with Adele, a needy online influencer whose crowdfunding serves up a mystery benefactor willing to help buy a French chateau. Yet, the house has hidden horrors, and her worthy sister Erin is prompted by Adele’s disappearance to try to uncover its secrets. Then and now are skilfully interwoven, but the writing could do with some work unless it is intended as a comment on the dim Adele: “My breath sticks in my throat / It’s the outline of a person” or “Dazzling in the low winter light, the building commands attention”. The plot takes precedence over the prose, and the similes can seem forced: “granite rimming the windows like smoky eyeliner”. A French decadence, more explicit and violent and less artful than anything served up by Dickson Carr, is the destination point of this Gothic tale.

The Winter List, S.G. MacLean (Quercus, £20)

Seicho Matsumoto’s Point Zero (Bitter Lemon Press, £9.99) is the translation of a 1959 Japanese work in which an advertising man disappears, his puzzled wife goes in search of him, and his brother is murdered. The novel is set in the Japan of a year earlier, and it captures the nature of its society then, with appearance a key element. The novel hinges on the tragic overshadow of the war, in this case postwar prostitution for American soldiers. A slow-burn of a novel — one that requires careful attention to appreciate its mood and the significance of the tone.

Two recent historical detective novels provide a ready counterpointing. S.G. MacLean’s The Winter List (Quercus, £20) is interesting, but suffers in its setting in Restoration England from there being better books — notably Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost but also Robert Harris’ Act of Oblivion. The plot and period detail are not of the level of a C.J. Sansom.

D.V. Bishop’s Ritual of Fire (2023, £16.99) works better. Set in Florence in 1538, this is also a series book, from the Cesare Aldo series that began with City of Vengeance. The interweaving of crime and politics in Medici Florence is ably handled, and the echo of the deadly Savonarola episode is brought out in murderous public burnings that serve as a revenge for the execution forty years earlier. Dark shadows, and a gripping pattern of tendrils from the past, make this a successful work. It is skillfully written, with an effective pace, and it provides an opportunity to go through layers as the murderous conspiracy is shown to have more participants. The principals are particularly well-handled.

Two novels involving young groups on holiday provide an opportunity to counterpoint failure and success. I generally seek to praise debut novels, but Oskar Jensen’s Helle and Death (Viper, £16.99) is poor. A group of Oxford friends on a reunion in a snowbound Northumbrian grand house are faced by a textbook suicide, and then revelations pile up alongside references to familiar Golden Age detective novels. It sounds possible, but in practice affected, self-regarding and weak. The conceit and clichés are to the fore in a novel that suffers badly from comparison with other recent reunion novels. The author would be advised to transform his style. One to miss.

In contrast, R.V. Raman’s Praying Mantis (Pushkin Vertigo, £9.99), also set amidst the heights, in this case the more dramatic Himalayan foothills, presents a return for Harith Athreya as a detective of substance. The novel is ably-plotted, well-written and enjoyable. The “how-linked?” is to the fore, and the reveal works. One to read; indeed, it has led me to obtain the other novels in the series. Like the Helle and Death, there is a reworking of a classic theme but, in this case, far more successfully.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover