Whether Christmas for you is a religious observance, a civic holiday, or just another day of the week, you can’t avoid the hype in modern American culture. Fiction titles set at Christmastime abound.
In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming, is the 2002 novel that inaugurated an excellent series of contemporary murder mysteries set in upstate New York. Since this book takes place in December, you can get a good dose of drifting snow and icy winds to put you in a wintry mood. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town of Miller’s Kill. (A “kill” is a small river in Dutch, but there’s that double meaning.) Clare Fergusson is an Episcopal priest who just started her first job at a local church. On a bitterly cold night, Clare finds an abandoned baby in a box on the church doorstep. She accompanies the baby to the hospital in an ambulance, where she meets Russ, who’s investigating the case. The plot, as twisty as the mountain roads of the Adirondacks, includes multiple murders, red herrings, and scenes of sheer terror. I don’t usually like to read thrillers (because of the sheer terror), but this novel has so much more. Spencer-Fleming makes her characters’ struggles of conscience totally believable and in no way sentimental. Clare has a deep faith that is impressive even to the agnostic Russ. And the sizzling attraction between married Russ and single Clare, evident from chapter 1, grows as the plot develops, pulled along by snappy and intelligent dialogue. Get yourself a copy of In the Bleak Midwinter and plan for some non-stop reading.
For an easy read by the fireplace after a day of feasting, try one of Anne Perry’s gentle Christmas mysteries. Perry is the bestselling author of full-length historical mysteries set in the Victorian era and in World War I. Every year since 2003, she’s also published a novella-length mystery set during the Christmas season, usually in the nineteenth-century England that she knows so well. These short Christmas mysteries are not complex in their plots like Perry’s full-length novels, but they do display Perry’s signature approach of recording her characters’ brooding introspection. The sleuth of the novella may be a professional or an amateur, but the Christmas festivities are always poignant. A Christmas Garland (2012), set in India during the British colonial rule there, was to me the least successful of these books, but I recommend the series overall. I especially liked A Christmas Secret (2006), about newlyweds moving into a vicarage in rural England and facing a murder. In A New York Christmas (2014) Perry ventures across the Atlantic in 1904. Yes, I do have a weakness for fiction set in New York City!
For the ultimate in British classic-era Christmas mystery, pick up the 1934 Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. This novel requires that the reader acquire some background knowledge of two subjects: the Fens and the change ringing of church bells. The Fens are low-lying marshy areas in the eastern part of England that were made into arable lands centuries ago by an extensive system of drainage channels. Change ringing is the practice of pulling ropes to sound tuned bells in a tower in a particular and complex order, not for the production of a discernible melody but for the precision of the sequence. Okay, okay, it’s esoteric. But Nine Tailors is worth this price of admission to an adventure of Lord Peter Wimsey that begins on one New Year’s Eve and concludes at Christmastime a year later.
The twist in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us (2017) is that a British family is forced to stay quarantined in their rural home for a week at Christmas because one daughter, a physician, has just returned from Africa, where she was treating victims of a deadly virus. Their mandatory togetherness evokes the traditional English-country-house mystery novel, though this is not a mystery. Novelist Hornak brings out some well-worn plot elements, such as the concealment of a medical diagnosis and the arrival of an adult son whose existence was previously unknown. The story is updated to the twenty-first century with emails, text messages, Twitter hashtags, and a bit of gay sex, but the characters are recognizable British types: the grumpy and self-centered paterfamilias, the frivolous young woman, the dense rugby player, the noble doctor. This is pretty good quality chick lit, suitable for light reading over the winter holidays.