Why are we so obsessed with crime at Christmas?
Around two years ago, I was left bemused by a sign accompanying a display in a bookshop: it simply read, ‘A Crime for Christmas’. On the display were stacks of little-known, if not completely forgotten, novels from the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing. What struck me was that a significant number of these stories were explicitly seasonal offerings, bearing pleasingly lurid titles like ‘Death at Advent’ on covers illustrated with quaint English villages covered with falling snow. Who, I wondered, would want to spend the festive season in the company of corpses, except perhaps those of their own relations.
And yet, this remarkable resurgence of classic Christmas capers has proved itself to be wildly popular. In 2014, Mystery in White (1937) – an entertaining whodunit by J. Jefferson Farjeon, once one of the major figures of the golden age of crime writing – shot to the top of the best-seller list in the final weeks of December. The following year, an even more obscure title, Muriel Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder (1936), and an anthology of short yuletide mysteries, Silent Night (2015), enjoyed similar success.
Far from being new, it turns out this seasonal appetite for blood and murder has quite a long history; in fact, it dates to the Golden Age of crime writing itself. ‘A Christie for Christmas’ was the name advertisers gave to Agatha Christie’s tradition of publishing a new novel each festive season, and most of the detection club set at least a couple of their short stories around the festive season. You need only look to the success of And Then There Were None on the BBC at New Year to see that yuletide crime has never really lost its appeal for audiences. The love-affair seems to have cooled for contemporary writers but audiences want corpses, and they want them vintage. So, why is this?
Having now spent the best part of the past two months with my nose to the page of one of these stories or other, I now feel equipped to offer something in the way of an explanation. From a practical point of view, the festive season certainly offers plenty in the way of motive for the average amateur sleuth to unravel. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) for example, the various members of the Lee family reassemble, after long-estrangement, at the bequest of the miserly Simeon Lee, who, of course, ends up dead, and with his much-treasured diamonds stolen. The set-up is typical of these books: the claustrophobic manor house setting; the long-separated family members coming together, each with their own secret; and the exquisite jewels which somehow come to the attention of the household, and may offer the motivation for a lesser crime than murder.
Christmas also offers a series of potentially interesting settings for the crime writer. In one way or another, all of crime fiction is descended from ‘impossible murder’ scenario established by Edgar Allan Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Snowbound houses in which the entire party are conveniently trapped inside at the time of the murder provide an attractive variant of the ‘locked room’ mystery, and there is much fun to be had with disguising the comings and goings of guests bedecked in costumes for the New Year’s party.
But, it seems to me, that beneath the surface of these intellectual puzzles there is something more fundamental going on. When you come to consider the history of the genre, it is no coincidence that the crime novel emerged in British history when science had begun to capture the popular imagination but was increasingly challenged by the intelligensia. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species, was published signalling the challenge of scientific reasoning and methods to the doctrine of the church, and, potentially, a whole system of morality. Around this time, Scotland Yard first established a Detective Force and, almost immediately, the first appearance of a detective in fiction – Inspector Bucket, who solves the murder of Mr Tulkinghorn, in Bleak House (1852).
The detective which Dickens established in English literature possesses a seemingly supernatural set skills. Inspector Bucket is described as a ‘mechanism of observation’ with an ‘unlimited number of eyes’, and his reasoning in the case of murder is ‘little short of miraculous’. By the era of the Golden Age, the sleuth was unlikely be a detective by profession, but he must certainly possess the same ability to clearly see those details which the non-sleuth will carelessly overlook. It was not for nothing that a reviewer in New Statesman and Society wrote that ‘a detective should have something of the god about him’.
Just as the authority of the churchman, invested with divine power derived from the word of God, appeared to be on the wane, the figure of the detective was on the rise. However, both the detective and churchman are seekers after truth – one divine, the other merely world – and, ultimately, justice. As the poet W.H. Auden, himself a detective story addict, wrote in his essay The Guilty Vicarage which explored the addiction of detective fiction that ‘the job of the detective is to restore the state of grace’. Moreover, he claimed, the figure of the detective must be ‘the official representative of the ethical or the exceptional individual who is himself in a state of grace.’ In this way, the detective becomes a figure of divine justice, and it is gift of a logical mind which befits him for such a role.
In Dorothy L. Sayers The Nine Tailors (1934) this idea has its literal manifestation. After breaking down during a snowstorm near the remote fenland village of Fenchurch St Paul, Lord Peter Wimsey becomes drawn into a twenty-year old mystery which raises questions about guilt, suffering and redemption. The novel is distinctly Christian in its theme and distinctly English in its evocation of an East Anglian village, its church and, above all, its bells. At the opening of the book, a chance illness leaves Lord Peter to take part in a nine-hour peel to usher in the New Year. The ringing of the bells acts both to herald the truths about to be unearthed by Lord Peter, but serves to make complicit in bringing a wicked man to justice (without wishing to spoil the plot, this is as far as I can go). The bells give praise to God, but also act as his hand.
When you look at the writings of this period, the image of a church or religion is never far away; indeed, G.K. Chesterton made his detective, Father Brown, an actual member of the cloth. By casting their detective in the mould of semi-divine figures, the choice of Agatha Christie, Sayers and Farjeon to create yuletide mysteries is not only natural but inevitable. When sin threatens to disorder the quintessentially English surroundings of these stories, the task of the detective is to rid of evil and restore to harmony. The comfort we find in these merely takes on an extra resonance when set against the religious festivities, that comfort being this: even in this reasoning age, and in this increasingly secular nation we can be restored to paradise, back to the Garden of Eden.