Fiction with a Christmas Setting

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.  

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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.

An 18th-Century Romp in NYC

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York     Francis Spufford     (2017)

When the English prose novel debuted as a genre in the eighteenth century, it was usually characterized by realism, episodic structure, and the adventures of a hero. With Golden Hill, Francis Spufford replicates many aspects of the early novel while producing more sprightly and less rambling text. Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City and stars Richard Smith, a Briton on a mysterious mission in the pre-Revolution American colonies.

Smith lands in Manhattan on the rainy evening of November 1, carrying a sort of money order for the enormous sum of a thousand pounds. When he attempts to collect his cash at a firm affiliated with the London firm on which the order is drawn, he understandably comes under suspicion. This may be ancient New York, but it’s still New York, and bankers seek verification. Besides, cash is in short supply in the colonies, where barter and paper money of fluctuating value serve instead.

During a waiting period of sixty days to receive—or not receive—the funds, Smith becomes intimately acquainted with the city of seven thousand souls that already has a “Broad Way” and a “Breuckelen.” He breakfasts at a coffee house and dines with the power brokers of the city. He celebrates “Pope Day” (Guy Fawkes Day, November 5) with the British inhabitants and “Sinterklaasavond” (St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5) with the Dutch. Novelist Spufford vividly describes the local customs of colonial New York as his character Smith gets into all sorts of scrapes, acts in an amateur theater production, and falls in love with an independent-minded woman.

Sections of Golden Hill do have the ring of eighteenth-century prose, but in other sections Spufford  takes off with paragraphs that sound more contemporary. Here he is describing falling snow:

“. . .the powdery fall was already furring the cobbles with a thin grey nap like velvet, and rimming them white along all the crooked lines between. Everything seemed slowed to the speed of the descending snow. A holy expectation reigned in the thickening air, and passers-by walked as if they did not want to disturb it. Only a small party . . . made any noise. They were singing something, and carrying a small lantern on a pole which lit the flakes to swarming gold in a small globe around itself, and touched the edges of their faces—the line of a hat, the scroll of an ear, the filaments of a beard—with shadowy gilding, like statues in an ancient shrine.” (182)

Spufford’s similes can be striking:

“The awkwardness between them that danger and hilarity had dissolved was drifting back into place, like a sediment in a briskly-shaken bottle that, when shaking ceases, begins to float down again.” (89)

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye. So it was when the news of Smith’s disgraceful liaison was suddenly released into the town.” (225)

Spufford conceals the purpose of Smith’s trip to New York until the close of the novel. I usually downrate a mystery if the author does not abide by the fair-play rule, which dictates that facts known to the protagonist cannot be  hidden from the reader. I gave Spufford a pass on this one, however, since Golden Hill is much more than a mystery. It’s an eighteenth-century romp with a serious message about justice at the end—and a coda from that independent-minded woman whom Smith met in New York.

More Medieval Mysteries

In my essay on the twelfth-century Brother Cadfael mysteries and in my subsequent posts (Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 1, and Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 2), I’ve introduced you to my minor obsession with crime novels set in the Middle Ages. Authors who write in this highly specialized sub-genre tend to churn out multiple books for their sleuths. Here are two more series that I liked.

The Domesday Series     Edward Marston (pen name for Keith Miles)     (1993 to 2000)          

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After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror’s Norman barons moved in to subdue the Anglo-Saxon population and redistribute land and assets. In 1086 William ordered the compilation of a massive survey of properties, known as the Domesday Book—in modern English called “Doomsday Book,” perhaps because it sealed the fates of those listed. Conflict is built in to this scenario! Enter Gervase Bret, the brilliant lawyer, and Ralph Delchard, the intrepid soldier, who travel around England investigating disputes related to the Domesday Book and, of course, solving crimes. Descriptive passages in this series are especially fine, and the stories are multifaceted. For example, the plot of The Wolves of Savernake plays well on fear, fantasy, rumor, suspicion, and superstition.

It’s fun to see how Marston works an animal into each title and plot of the eleven volumes:  The Wolves of Savernake (1993), The Ravens of Blackwater (1994), The Dragons of Archenfield (1995), The Lions of the North (1996), The Serpents of Harbledown (1996), The Stallions of Woodstock (1997), The Hawks of Delamere (1998), The Wildcats of Exeter (1998), The Foxes of Warwick (1999), The Owls of Gloucester (2000), and The Elephants of Norwich (2000)

In addition to the Domesday Series, Marston has written a mystery series about a theater troupe in Elizabethan England, featuring the stage manager Nicholas Bracewell. This series has more seaminess and sex. Under his given name (Keith Miles) and the pen names Conrad Allen, Martin Inigo, and Martin Garland, Marston has written dozens of other books set in various historical periods.

The Owen Archer Series     Candace Robb     (1993 to 2008)     

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In the early 1360s, an archer who has lost an eye in England’s never-ending war in France retires to the city of York, in northern England. Owen Archer apprentices himself to a female apothecary, Lucie Wilton, whom he marries. The mystery part comes in because Owen also works as a spy for John Thoresby, who is the Archbishop of York and the Chancellor of England under King Edward III. As Owen rides away to crack cases, Lucie tends the shop in York and gets involved in sub-plots. Although the dialogue occasionally doesn’t ring true for me, the plots in these books are complex and satisfying. The personalities of Owen, Lucie, and numerous supporting characters are believable and well-rounded.

There are ten Owen Archer mysteries: The Apothecary Rose (1993), The Lady Chapel (1994), The Nun's Tale (1995), The King's Bishop (1996), The Riddle of St. Leonard's (1997), A Gift of Sanctuary (1998), A Spy for the Redeemer (2002), The Cross-Legged Knight (2002), The Guilt of Innocents (2007), and A Vigil of Spies (2008). Two other separate mystery series by Candace Robb feature characters Margaret Kerr and Kate Clifford. Under the pen name Emma Campion, Robb also writes non-mystery historical novels set in the fourteenth century.

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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Somehow I missed the word “thriller” in the blurbs about this book. Thrillers give me nightmares, so I rarely read them. I thought that You Belong to Me was a literary novel about a map collector. Hah!

Paul Reeves, a 50-year-old collector of old maps of New York City, is indeed a central character, but his quest to acquire rare and pricey specimens is only one of several plot lines that novelist Harrison leads his readers through. Paul’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a little scheme of her own. Then there’s the story of Billy, a tough former Army Ranger from Texas navigating contemporary New York as he tries to win back his gorgeous girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s now married to someone else. That someone else is Ahmed, a prominent Iranian-American financier with relatives who came through the 1979 revolution in Iran with plenty of guerilla survival skills. And guerilla tactics are part of the arsenal of Mexican bodybuilder and hitman Hector, who also gets involved. All of these plots play out on the streets of New York, as we elbow through the lunchtime crowds in Rockefeller Center to reach Christie’s for a map auction, as we creep down a squalid back street behind a grimy weight-lifting gym, as we careen along the Belt Parkway with a murderer in pursuit.

Yes, several gruesome murders take place in the noir New York of You Belong to Me. I tried to zip through those passages quickly, lingering more over paragraphs such as this one, describing a map from 1776: “The large map showed, in stunning detail, the charming young city of New York set amid farm fields, swamps, ponds, streams, and woods, complete with harbor soundings in fathoms. Only months later, in September of that year, much of the southern tip of the city would be consumed in a ghastly fire that broke out in a bordello frequented by British sailors . . . The map also depicted the quaint little village of Brooklyn, spelled ‘Brookland’, and nearby the marshy water of Wallabout Bay . . . The map’s lines were crisp, the detail so magnificent that actual wisps of smoke from individual houses were depicted. Such beauty and precision and provenance made the map fantastically important.” (78)

The title of the novel reveals the theme that unites the narrative: possession. Paul wants to own precious maps of his beloved city. Rachel decides that Paul should belong to her and her alone. Billy and Ahmed both want to possess Jennifer. Hitman Hector wants to acquire the money that is owed to him. Watch out for that greed, New Yorkers! Colin Harrison has your number, and he punches it with impudence and sass. You Belong to Me is the proverbial page-turner, with rapid-fire action and snappy dialogue, but the characters, with all their failings and evil deeds, are strangely endearing. Read this one even if, like me, you don’t usually care for thrillers.

PD James & Mysteries

Talking About Detective Fiction     PD James      (2009)

PD James, the esteemed British author of detective fiction, put together this slender nonfiction book in 2009, a few years before her death in 2014.

In it, she sweeps through the history of the genre, going back as far as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859); taking her time with Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); explaining the Golden Age of detective fiction in the period between the two world wars; and devoting a long chapter to four women writers of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh). James then dissects the writing process for detective fiction, examining settings, viewpoints, characters, and plots.

At the outset, she spends some time defining her subject:

“The detective story . . . is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organized structure and recognized conventions . . . There must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.” (9-10)

James does touch on related fiction, including thrillers, but her emphasis is on the classic works of detective fiction. She knows this subject intimately, having produced fourteen books in the Adam Dalgliesh series, two books in the Cordelia Gray series, and several standalone novels.

How does an author write a detective novel that becomes a classic? James thinks it’s primarily by creating a vivid and distinctive world that the reader can enter. Here she  comments on what are called “cozy” mysteries, set in an English village:

“Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages . . . An English village is itself a closed society, and one which, whether we live in a village or not, retains a powerful hold on our imagination, an image compounded of nostalgia for a life once experienced or imagined and a vague unfocused longing to escape the city for a simpler, less frenetic and more peaceful life.” (135-136)

I was pleased that, more than once in this book, James mentions what she calls “the fair-play rule.” This is the convention of detective fiction that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows. For example, the author cannot have the detective step aside and speak privately with another character in a dialogue that is not revealed to the reader. Authors break the fair-play rule more often than you’d expect, and I growl whenever I see this transgression in a mystery that I’m reading.

Talking About Detective Fiction reads like you’re having a conversation with PD James, but you have the advantage of being able to flip to a discussion of a favorite author—for me, the section on Dorothy L Sayers. James presents the views of Sayers’s admirers and detractors, but she respects Sayers’s Gaudy Night as “one of the most successful marriages of the puzzle with the novel of social realism and serious purpose.” (112)

I was also eager to read James’s analysis of historical detective fiction. She finds this subgenre especially difficult for the writer, since the setting must be so carefully researched. She mentions among the successful authors of historical fiction Anne Perry and Peter Lovesey (Victorian England), Ellis Peters (medieval England), Lindsey Davis (ancient Rome), and CJ Sansom (Tudor England). Although I call the subgenre “historical mysteries,” I agree with her picks.

I wished for an index to Talking About Detective Fiction, but at least it does have descriptive chapter titles. Lovers of mysteries, especially classic British mysteries, will enjoy it.