Christmas is a great time to be indoors, flat out on sofa under blanket with a decent bottle of red and a good book. For those having to put up with ungrateful children and annoying in-laws, getting stuck into a bit of blood-spattered literature will feel like light relief. So, here are recommendations for some festive crime classics and recent must-reads…
The country house whodunit is, of course, a staple of classic crime fiction, and the Christmas-set version is more or less a genre in its own right. Agatha Christie fans can pick up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, or for something less familiar try The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay, which reminded me of Downton Abbey crossed with Cluedo. In a similar vein, but for my money a more satisfying read, is An English Murder by Cyril Hare. This snowbound murder mystery about a Christmas gathering at the stately home of an ageing aristocrat is set not long after the end of World War Two, and throws politics and history into the mix as its succinct and atmospheric mystery unfolds. The story is nicely undercut by the author’s dry sense of humour and a memorable set of characters, including an eccentric academic, a haughty chancellor of the exchequer and a suitably long-suffering butler.
Quick Christmas Reads
If you prefer your crime writing short and sharp, get your festive fix with Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, a neat collection of Christmas crime capers by big hitters including Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers. PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is also worth a look. She was often commissioned by magazines to write Christmas-themed shorts and this volume brings a quartet of them together.
Best of 2019
The latest hit crime novel is a great option if you are looking for a gift for the keen reader in your life, or need to pad out your own present list. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, which has attracted great reviews and plenty of readers, brings a modern twist to the old fashioned whodunit, with a group of university friends gathering at a remote lodge in the Scottish Highlands for a New Year’s Eve party that doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Another 2019 must-read couldn’t be set further from the rainy wilds of Scotland – Scrublands by Chris Hammer is a thriller that unfolds in a drought-hit Aussie backwater. A year after a priest shot dead five young men outside his church, a journalist arrives to investigate how the local population are coping with the fallout. Hammer is a first-time novelist and the way he animates the parched outback and the dark secrets at its heart is seriously impressive and addictive.
A weighty non-fiction book is a go-to present for many last minute Christmas shoppers, and The Five by Hallie Rubenhold would be an excellent choice for lovers of true crime and social history alike. With reams and reams already written about Jack the Ripper, Rubenhold focuses instead on his victims, ‘the five’ of the title, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. What results is a fascinating book that tells their stories with compassion and precision, while also bringing Victorian London vividly to life. The book was recently awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, and as the judges’ put in upon announcing it as the winner, “It is a book we would all give to a friend for Christmas, knowing that they will have finished it with pleasure by New Year’s Day.”
For the Good Times isn’t a traditional crime novel, but David Keenan’s Gordon Burn Prize-winner makes my list because it’s full of criminals doing unspeakable things, and because I make the rules on what qualifies and I absolutely love it. The book follows the fortunes, misfortunes and countless misdeeds of a group of Perry Como-obsessed IRA thugs – it’s the blackest of comedies, with bursts of eye-watering violence, comic book flights of fancy and moments of genuine tenderness. It’s an exhilarating read, not for the faint hearted and perfect for those fed up with festive good cheer. ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’? Not in Keenan’s Northern Ireland, that’s for sure.