Caroline: The classic Christmas traditions are all about comfort. Blazing fires, mulled drinks, vast quantities of food — it’s all intended make the darkest time of year that little bit brighter. Much of the entertainment we enjoy over the festive period tries to do the same thing. The books, films and TV series themed around this time overflow with heartwarming adventures and happy endings.
But there’s one tradition that bucks this trend: the Christmas murder mystery. The depths of December inspired authors like Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and more. Their Christmas novels and stories have vicious murders and ingenious thefts committed and investigated against the backdrop of cosy festive fun.
Reading crime fiction from the early twentieth century and watching television adaptations of these books is a really popular activity at Christmas. It’s nice to curl up with a good whodunnit by the fire, but if we stop and think about it, reading about complicated ways for people to die is not exactly the most appropriate festive activity.
So why is it that we love crime at Christmas?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton
One of my absolute favourite murder mystery novels is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers. It was published in 1934 and sees her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigating a theft and murder in the Fens in East Anglia. The first few times that I read it, I was — like most readers — caught up in the detailed study of bellringing that the plot includes. It was only by chance that I happened to open it one year on 24 December, and on rereading came to appreciate that it contains some extraordinary writing about the dark bleakness that accompanies the bright joy of Christmas and New Year.
After that, I began to find similar passages in plenty of other detective novels from this period. Some of them address Christmas directly, such as Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in which a millionaire is found with his throat slit in a locked room on Christmas Eve, and others more obliquely like The Nine Tailors and Gladys Mitchell’s Groaning Spinney from 1950, in which a corpse is discovered the night before Christmas, but Mrs Bradley’s investigation continues well into the spring. The latter was actually republished in 2017 with the new title of Murder in the Snow: a Cotswold Christmas Mystery to really tie into the festive murder mystery reading trend.
The British Library Crime Classics, a publishing project to bring lesser known or out of print works back to readers also includes its fair share of Christmas stories, including The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay and Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith, as well as several festive themed short story collections. Both of these novels feature the discovery of murdered corpse in the midst of Christmas festivities — indeed, in the former, the victim is actually discovered by a guest dressed as Father Christmas. You couldn’t get a clearer example of murder intruding on cosy Christmas celebrations. But why is this such a popular trope?
Cecily: I think that the particular thing about Christmas is that you have such a strong contrast between the crime that occurs and the context in which it’s occurring.
Caroline: This is Cecily Gayford, a senior commissioning editor at Profile Books. She is also the editor of several anthologies of festive murder mystery stories, including most recently A Very Murderous Christmas, which includes work by Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell and GK Chesterton. She’s spent a lot of time thinking about why murder is such a popular Christmassy subject.
Cecily: You have a time of goodwill, a time that families are supposed to come together, it’s supposed to be about joy and generosity and safety and cosiness and the contrast between the warm inside and the cold outside. But then you bring that darkness, the sort of feeling underneath the Christmas tree of the Christmas dinner, and you have a disaster or an act of violence — a sort of damage to the social contract right in the centre of what is essentially the most safe and warm time of the year.
Caroline: This contrast is a heightened version of the effect murder mysteries have all year round: we like reading them partly because they make us feel safe. In the books, the murders happen in a controlled, ordered way and are solved by clever detectives, unlike the chaotic unresolved fears we might have in real life. At Christmas, this sense of danger resolved is all the greater. There are two ways this works, Cecily says.
Cecily: I think probably the most important is really that there is something about the mood of Christmas which means that we crave a kind of counterpoint to all that comfort and joy. It can feel a bit cloying and actually we fancy a bit of murder and mayhem to offset it. And I think that there’s something about the Christmas mood which obviously is itself a kind of contrast to the dark, miserable time of year and that feels a bit artificial because as a society we know that there’s both light and shadow in the world and if we insist on everything being all comfort and joy and goodwill to all men then there’s a sense in which the other side of life bursts back into being.
And then I think the second reason which is connected to is partly to do with why we like detective fiction in general which is that as well as being a good story it’s a way of working through anxieties that we have about the world and how safe it is for us.
Caroline: These stories are building on one of the fundamental tools of storytelling, she says.
Cecily: Now a lot of detective writers I think, most notably Dorothy L. Sayers, drew a line between Greek tragedy and detective fiction and talked about how the crime itself is a kind of cathartic moment. It allows us to address what happens when society breaks down and we’re no longer safe in places that we should be and of course there’s something about Christmas which is particularly cosy and safe you know we’re usually home with our families or inside brightly lit places at a time of festivity and so that intensifies that feeling of the worst has happened and so we had that cathartic release of addressing what could go wrong and then the resolution of it being solved and things being put back and returned to sort of prelapsarian safety essentially where detective sweeps in from outside.
Caroline: Different authors used the Christmas setting to explore different aspects of human nature.
Cecily: There’s some really great Agatha Christie stories, there’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” which is one in which Poirot’s invited to a country house and finds I think it’s a ruby in the middle of a Christmas pudding. Agatha Christie was someone who was particularly preoccupied by a certain kind of middle class, safe very ordered world. So I think she does it very well.
Margery Allingham was interested in I suppose the more upper class kind of country house side of things. They often have Albert Campion turning up in these slightly fraught noble families having to entertain a large group of country house guests but one of them is a blackmailer and there’s a disreputable uncle and in another corner an heiress with a secret. So I think people addressed it in different ways.
Caroline: Cecily also pointed out to me that there’s a slightly more mundane explanation for the profusion of Christmas murder mystery stories. Readers really like them, so publications pay authors to write them.
Cecily: I mean one of the reasons why there are so many Christmas crime short stories is that it was in a lot of these people were professional writers and it was a good opportunity for them to place a story. I think it had a partly reflects the fact that there were often special Christmas editions of magazines and it was a professional opportunity as well as a creative one.
Caroline: In the decades since Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Mitchell were working, a new Christmas murder mystery tradition has emerged: that of the TV special. I’m going to be talking a lot more about screen adaptations of these books in the next episode, by the way, so make sure you refresh your feed on 26 December, because you’re not going to want to miss it. In the last few years, the BBC has been running new versions of Agatha Christie stories in the days between Christmas and New Year, and they’ve been a huge ratings hit. Why do we like watching something so dark and violent just when we’re all snuggled up on the sofa with a tin of quality street, though? These stories are not necessarily what you would first jump to as “good family viewing”.
Anna: It’s such a good question because obviously when you think about murder mysteries you’re mostly thinking about kind of hysterical violent deaths which doesn’t seem like the most cozy thing off the bat but I think there’s so much about them that’s comforting and I think part of what I originally found comforting about murder mysteries was kind of the way that they make a silly theatre out of death which you know a lot of us struggle with fear around death.
Caroline: This is Anna Leszkiewicz, a cultural critic and the deputy culture editor at the New Statesman magazine. Some eagle eared listeners might recognise her as my co-host from the now discontinued pop culture podcast SRSLY, which we hosted together for two and a half years. I’ve known Anna for a long time now, and one of her most beloved pastimes is watching murder mystery adaptations on ITV3, all year round, but especially near Christmas. She likes series like the David Suchet adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, but her real obsession is with series like Morse and Midsomer Murders, which although they are modern use many of the tropes and styles of the golden age of detective fiction. This, she says, is precisely what is so comforting about them.
Anna: For me I started really getting into murder mysteries when I was a student and I was watching Lewis which is set in and around the university I was studying art in Oxford and I really liked the way a that it made such a kind of ridiculous theatre out of death but by the way it kind of dramatised the absurdity of caring too much about academia because a lot of the villains would be like Oxford professors or students with like maniacal revenge against their tutors and it made it so clear that to care too much about your essay deadlines was just so absurd. And I found it really comforting but I think what Lewis also has is a is a kind of fairly derivative template. It’s a mix of very familiar either down to earth or eccentric characters very kind of lush grand or period settings and then these kind of contained wild plots that you just watch over the course of one episode or maybe two episodes if they’re two parter structures of this kind of like melodramatic easy to follow murder plot line. So they’re kind of that combination of familiar and wild and crazy but all in this very kind of like safe contained old fashioned space. So I think it’s that combination of things that makes them quite compulsively watchable and quite comforting because it’s that familiarity without it being boring is what makes it so comforting for me.
Caroline: As with detective novels, there are certain key aspects that a comforting murder mystery adaptation has to have for it to work, she say.
Anna: But for me the things that they need to have are they have to have the identity of the murderer being withheld from the audience for kind of the whole of the episode. I don’t like these murder mysteries like Luther and stuff where you know what’s happening and you’re just waiting for liefer to figure it out. I like I like being surprised at the end I like being able to make my best to make my guess. And then you have this recurring and probably very brooding detective figure. But they don’t have to be a detective. They can be as we know a hot pathologist or a hot vicar. Grant Chester and other shows. Each episode has to explore like a brand new case. So you could just pick up whenever you don’t have to watch the series kind of in order. I think that’s a big part of their accessibility. And then you have to have this you know ridiculous staged grand reveal where the detective figure somehow manages to persuade them the murderer to just explain everything they did in front of a whole room full of like people gasping. You know that’s kind of key. And then I think you have to have that tone of kind of absurd death implausible twists.
Caroline: A wintry, Christmassy setting really amplifies the comforting nature of these shows, she says.
Anna: They’s not really any kind of summer glorious summer set murder mysteries there’s a lot of these kind of twee English villages which really come into their own at Christmas these sorts of settings. I do think part of that is the kind of fairy opulent period setting which really just lends itself to kind of the lushness of festive decor and you know in mazing coats on and I think yeah it’s just the more comforting a program the more you want to watch at Christmas like Christmas is a time of comfort watching. You also want it to be something accessible and though murder mystery is often aren’t really suitable for tiny children they are quite family appropriate especially you know once once the kids are a bit older a grown up it’s kind of the kind of thing I mean I watch a lot of Midsomer Murders growing up with my family. Here was a big thing that we would all sit round and watch as family we’d laugh at the theme tune we’d laugh as Martine McCutcheon was bludgeoned to death with a giant wheel of cheese. That’s something very accessible and family watch about those programmes so I think that’s a big part of why they have such an appeal at Christmas as well. And also I think Christmas because it’s a kind of creepy time — the days are short, the nights are long — ghost stories are a big part of Christmas and murder mysteries often especially the Christmas ones come with that kind of like supernatural edge that’s eventually you know especially something like Jonathan Creek which is all about this kind of guy. He disproves the paranormal that’s kind of his whole role as a detective. They often can try and incorporate these ideas that you know Poirot’s seen a ghost or whatever it might be. And so I think they’ve just got all these little boxes that they tick you know period setting tick alignment with the supernatural tick easy to watch tick it just really means that they’re kind of perfect Christmas viewing.
Caroline: This issue of the wheel of cheese is an important one, because although these stories are violent, we don’t often actually see the gore, or even the actual moment of killing. For tales of death, they can be oddly bloodless. Plenty of the Christmas short stories I’ve read in Cecily’s anthologies and elsewhere don’t even include a murder, but focus rather on theft or deception. (My favourite of this kind, in case you were wondering, is “The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L Sayers. It’s in the 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, and you should definitely get hold of it to read on Christmas Eve.) This lack of explicit violence in these murder mysteries is a key part of why they’re enjoyable at Christmas, Anna argues, although there is some sign that that is changing.
Anna: Over the last four years there has been a trend to make these particularly the Agatha Christie adaptations more dark more gritty I guess because that’s where a lot of TV has gone. But I kind of prefer them with without but the real darkness and violence and as you say like I don’t I love watching murder mysteries and actually they don’t feel like a pity a place that’s full of violence against women even though obviously women are murdered so they literally do it involve violence against women it’s done in such a such a way that you never feel like it’s particularly depressing or realistic or likely to to happen you know it’s often the motives are not oh well he was domestically abusing his wife. It’s like well she had the ruby opal or whatever.
Caroline: Ultimately, we want just enough violence so that the peril feels real and the resolution convincing, but not so much that we actually feel scared ourselves.
Anna: That’s part of what makes them enjoyable is that they’re safe because it’s kind of taking all the things like you know death mud sexual affairs and all these things and putting them in such a soft twee and distant often context you know whether it’s the village of midsummer or 1920s London or whatever it put it puts it at a distance from reality and hams up everyone’s motives so much that it’s just that the melodramatic element takes it away from reality and it makes it quite as safe space to kind of engage with things like that without it feeling terrifying or horrible.
Caroline: As ever, murder mysteries take our anxieties about the world and reflect them back at us. At Christmas, a time that is meant to be all about plenty and goodwill, but which is often cold and difficult for many, they help us remember that not everything is comfort and joy, and give us a way to process our own feelings about safety and violence.
The firelight might be bright, but the shadows in the corners are darker than ever.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/crimeatchristmas. There, you can also read a full transcript.
A reminder that this was just the first of two festive specials – the second one will be out on 26 December. If you head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and sign up, you’ll get an alert when it comes out so that you can pretend to your family you have a very important work email and go off to another room to listen in peace.
I got a really nice surprise this week when the podcast leapt up the Apple Podcasts chart, thanks to all of the lovely reviews and ratings that listeners had been leaving. We peaked just outside the top 50 in both the UK and Ireland, which is completely amazing and you’re all very kind. If you’d like to keep spreading the word, who knows how high we can go. Regardless, I’ll be back next Wednesday with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Adaptations, with special guest Sarah Phelps.