The tree is up and decorated, the presents are bought and wrapped, the baking is done. Sit back in the comfortable chair, with the cat purring on your lap or the dog curled at your feet and your favorite hot beverage on the table beside you. Whether it’s snowing, blowing or just plain cold, nothing warms up the holidays like a good mystery.
Mysteries set at Christmas time have been written by some of the best. The volume A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories collects three of Georges Simenon’s most enjoyable Christmas tales featuring his famous Inspector Maigret. In ‘A Maigret Christmas’, the Inspector receives two unexpected visitors on Christmas Day, who lead him on the trail of a mysterious intruder dressed in red and white who a little girl was sure was Santa, even though he spent his time making a hole in the floor. Sadly, the other two stories do not feature the inspector, nor are they mysteries, but are set at the holidays and tell people stories as only Simenon can. In ‘Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook’, the sound of alarms over Paris send the police on a cat and mouse chase across the city. And ‘The Little Restaurant in Les Ternes (A Christmas Story for Grown-Ups)’ tells of a cynical woman who is moved to an unexpected act of festive charity in a nightclub.
Formerly titled Envious Casca, A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer has all the stock elements: the familiar country house setting. a collection of ill assorted relatives and business associates, and a classic locked room murder. It begins a bit slowly, showing the characters as they abrade on each other and reveal their foibles and the tensions in their relationships. It also paints a Christmas of decorations and planned festivities although there is more bickering than celebrating. Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard is called in on the case on Christmas Day, and so he is not in a peace and goodwill mood either. It is not as gloomy as it sounds and the clues are given openly but are hard to recognize. It is considered one of Heyer’s better mysteries and rightfully belongs on the list.
I have to include An English Murder, not just because I have enjoyed several of Cyril Hare’s mysteries. Cyril Hare was the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark (1900–1958), a judge who took his pen name from his London home, Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and his chambers in Hare Court. Long before the likes of John Grisham, Hare used his professional experience to craft mysteries that were the foundation of the legal thriller. Another country-house murder complete with a company of snowed in characters, including the requisite butler it is the detective who is unusual. Although there is a policeman assigned to the party as security for a government functionary, the case is solved by an academic, a Jewish refugee from the holocaust, there to study old documents in the family library.