Written by PD James — Christmas makes many people want to return to old family traditions and the comfort of the familiar. And what could be more comforting than relaxing and knowing you are safely in the hands of one of the greats of crime fiction? Faber has gathered together four unpublished stories by the late PD James, all initially written for the season, although the link to Christmas is sometimes a little tangential. The Mistletoe Murders and Other Stories is a wonderful way to reconnect with this great author after her passing in 2014, and with a foreword by Val McDermid and an excellent dust cover featuring a woodcut style illustration, you’ll want to grab the hardback rather than go for Kindle.
Crime short stories are a challenge for some authors. There’s not much space to elaborate on characters and their motivations and the solutions to a mystery can seem a little too pat. But PD James can be counted upon to provide an excellent build-up of atmosphere and tension. As always, she is the mistress of personification in settings: the brooding, sinister manor house; a grimy, stifling flat in Camden; an over-the-top monstrosity built for a pharmaceutical magnate. Although each story has a mystery at its core, these ones are all very different in tone, ranging from playful humour in The Twelve Clues of Christmas to moral ambiguity and malice in The Boxdale Inheritance, from petty envy and frustration in A Very Commonplace Murder to grief and unease in The Mistletoe Murder.
The Boxdale Inheritance and The Twelve Clues of Christmas feature the author’s much-loved, poetry-reciting detective Adam Dalgliesh, and these are lighter in tone. PD James is not above poking fun at herself for indulging in the seasonal propensity for crime and ghost stories. The opening scene of The Twelve Clues of Christmas, for instance, shows Dalgliesh making his way to Christmas dinner with his aunt in Suffolk, when he is accosted by a shadowy figure on the side of the road. His first thought, as the author remarks with her tongue firmly in cheek, “…was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers of an upmarket weekly magazine.”
Sure enough, he becomes embroiled in a mysterious suicide at Harkerville Hall. It’s all a bit of escapist fun, with plenty of knowing nods and winks to Agatha Christie and locked-room mysteries.
The Boxdale Inheritance sees Dalgliesh trying to solve a cold case at the behest of his godfather, the scrupulously ethical Canon Hubert Boxdale, who stands to inherit some money from his Great Aunt Allie. This former music-hall artist married Boxdale’s grandfather much to the disapproval of the family and was accused of poisoning her elderly husband to inherit his fortune. Although she was cleared of all charges, the Canon still has his doubts and is therefore reluctant to have anything to do with the money. Dalgliesh does wonder why ‘the silly old noodle’ can’t just take the cash and stop worrying, but he does his best to investigate and mollify his godfather’s conscience.
The other two stories are much more sinister and really prove that PD James was anything but a cosy crime writer. A young war widow is invited to her grandmother’s house for the first time in The Mistletoe Murder, and soon gets caught up in a typical Agatha Christie scenario, in which she suspects she is being used as the perfect alibi. In A Very Commonplace Murder, a former filing clerk revisits the place where he witnessed a murder 16 years previously and ponders on the reasons why he did not come forward at the time to prevent a miscarriage of justice.
There may be flashes of wry humour in her storytelling, but crime is always serious and its consequences far-reaching, even though the perpetrators are not always brought to justice. PD James takes us into her characters’ minds and embarks upon a journey that transforms them and how we think of them, always with a great economy of words, stylistic elegance and a shock of surprise.
A delightful addition to the PD James catalogue and a perfect read for yourself at Christmas, or as a gift.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars