Caroline: The days are drawing in. Darkness falls mid afternoon. The light and warmth inside only emphasises quite how icily cold it is out.
At first, the snow is a cheery accompaniment to a festive gathering somewhere remote and rural, a thick white blanket to be admired out of the window while sitting by the fire with a glass of something. But as the weather gets worse and worse, things take a sinister turn. A murder under these conditions is doubly horrifying: the snow means that help can’t get through, but also that the crime must have been committed by someone who is already inside.
This is a classic murder mystery scenario, especially beloved of British detective novelists from the early twentieth century. If judging by the crime fiction of this period, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was a white Christmas every year between 1918 and 1940 and beyond. As written by the likes of Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Cyril Hare and others, wintry weather is every villain’s best friend and detective’s worst enemy.
That’s why, today, we’re going to let it snow.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
The first time that I can remember being really conscious of the role that snow plays in detective fiction is probably one that many fans of this genre share. On Christmas Day in 2010, I watched the ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express on television with my family. It stars David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, of course, and it’s a lavish, 80 minute version of the story that is a notably darker departure from the more cheery, episodic nature of some of the earlier ITV Poirots. What struck me about it most, though, was how cold everything seemed. This adaptation emphasises the novel’s themes about natural justice and revenge and links them to Poirot’s own Catholicism. As a result, the great Belgian detective spends a lot of time standing outside in the cold, thinking deeply while the snow swirls evocatively around him. There’s much less time spent displaying the warm wood and velvet of the train’s plush interior than in the recent Kenneth Branagh film. In the ITV version, there’s also a very dramatic shot of the train itself almost completely submerged in a huge snow drift with only its chimney sticking out, just to ram home that point about the snow and the cold. As a result, I feel like this version of the story gave me more awareness of how isolated and cold everyone on board must have felt, even before the murder caused panic and fear.
Snow is a very powerful tool in the hands of a detective novelist. In other kinds of fiction, wintry weather might be a useful backdrop or a way of creating a certain atmosphere, but in a whodunnit, it can act both as a catalyst for plot developments and even a kind of character in its own right. When constructing a murder mystery plot, two of the most important elements are the closed circle of suspects and the clues left behind by the murderer. Both must be established in a fairly plausible fashion, so as not to derail the reader’s interest from whatever else is going on. A thick blanket of snow is the perfect way to achieve both of these things in one go, without having to resort to improbable contrivances or undue complexities. A snowstorm can easily imprison a group of people quite realistically in a house or train. And even once the snow stops falling, as long as it lays on the ground, it provides the perfect surface to record footsteps and tracks of all kinds.
In addition to these two fundamental qualities, a heavy snow fall has other, less practical implications for a novel. If you’ve ever been outside the morning after a heavy snowfall, you will know about the transformational and befuddling powers of snow. It can make a landscape look completely different, meaning that even someone quite familiar with a place or route can lose their way. It also has a silencing effect, dampening some sounds and magnifying others. In some circumstances, this can be charming, picturesque even, and in others, deeply sinister. Snow might keep characters neatly imprisoned inside, but it opens all sorts of doors for their creator.
Because the boom in detective fiction between the two world wars that is generally called the golden age was mostly centred on British, Irish and a few American writers, their stories are generally set in the northern hemisphere. As such, a snowy mystery is often also a Christmas mystery, which brings its own possibilities for plot and setting. The popular link between Christmas — generally considered to be a joyful celebration — and crime is long established and superficially contradictory. But when you dig a bit deeper, and think about the tensions that lie beneath the surface in family gatherings and a time of year when consumerism and conspicuous consumption is at its height, it’s a bit easier to understand how the association came about. When I spoke to the screenwriter Sarah Phelps for my Adaptations episode this time last year, she put forward a theory that there’s something primal about how we want difficult stories as we gather together in the firelight at the darkest time of year, and it runs through culture beyond just crime fiction.
Sarah: When I was at Eastenders, Christmas Day Eastenders, you want a punch up, you want a big disclosure, you want everyone falling out and you know somebody dressed as Father Christmas being found out as having been shagging his son’s wife you know that’s what you want. You want a great big thing and I think maybe there’s something cathartic about it but I think for me it’s that sense of a real emotional complexity with a real kind of pay off is satisfying because you’re brain’s engaged and you are being pulled into a story and pulled out of you know you’ve entertained your family, you’ve fed them, everybody’s eaten everything they put in front of you.And you’re absolutely sick of making cups of tea. And now I will sit down. you’re going to be felt sorry and you know that tradition goes back to before television that sitting around the fire and having somebody tell you story after feasting to away the dark that need in us to be told a story and to be taken out of ourselves. It goes way deeper than TV, it goes way deeper than Christmas it’s just this part of our DNA it’s at a molecular level that we love after the feast to sit down by the fire and have somebody take us out of ourselves. It’s just who we are.
Caroline: It’s worth noting that not only does a wintry, Christmas setting work well for an author seeking a clever plot, but it’s also a time of year when readers enjoy consuming this kind of bloody, murder filled story. We might like to think that what we want during the festive season are jolly stories with happy endings, but as Sarah points out, one of the UK’s most watched shows on the 25th December each year is EastEnders, and that festive episode almost always includes multiple catastrophes. There have been explosions and fires, as well as devastating revelations about characters’ love lives. Like reading stories about murder, death and divorce is perhaps not what you’d think people would want to watch play out on Christmas afternoon as they put their feet up after a big lunch. Yet that’s what they choose to tune in to, while munching happily through tins of Quality Street.
For a whodunnit, a Christmas gathering can enhance and augment the closed circle already created by a snowy setting. Think of Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, for instance, in which members of a family travel from far and wide to spend the festive season back at the family home, only for a bloody murder to take place on Christmas Eve. People who would never normally chose to live under the same roof are shoved together in the name of Christmas spirit, and if a sudden fall of snow means that they can’t leave, then you have the perfect conditions for detective fiction.
After the break: a rundown of the best snowy mysteries for your enjoyment this festive season.
Publishers cottoned on early to the idea that Christmas detective novels and stories sell well, and have long been commissioning authors to write them. The idea of a “Christie for Christmas” became legendary in the industry during the decades that Agatha Christie was working, because a book by her released in mid October could be absolutely relied upon to sell lots of copies before the big day rolled around in December. Other companies and authors of course picked up on this trend too. Magazines and periodicals as well would seek out festive stories for December issues, which means that there’s really a very large quantity of wintry, Christmas related mystery fiction to choose from, especially from the 1920s, 30s and 40s when the “golden age” style of Christie and her contemporaries was at the height of its popularity.
As a sidetone, it’s interesting to see that this festive effect on the crime fiction publishing market endures pretty much unchanged. At the end of 2014, the British Library Crime Classic reprint of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White became an unexpected bestseller, as shoppers responding to its wintry cover and its subtitle of “A Christmas Crime Story” picked it up in their thousands to enjoy over the festive period. Similarly, an anthology of Christmas short stories from the same imprint published the following year and titled Silent Nights became one of the fastest selling crime anthologies in decades. The lure of a vintage murder mystery at Christmas seems to be as strong as it ever was.
Farjeon’s Mystery in White from 1937 is a distillation of lots of these themes, which perhaps explains its popularity. A group of strangers are stranded in a train on Christmas Eve after it hits a snowdrift. Several of them decide to strike out away from the line in the hopes of finding somewhere warm to spend the night. After floundering around for a while, they come across a house with the door open. Nobody is around, but the fires are lit and the tea table has just been laid. The snow piles up, and soon even if they wanted to leave, it’s impossible. It’s a perfect opening to a festive mystery, which then goes on to have plenty of creepy moments with locked rooms, mysterious footprints in the snow, and vanishing servants. Even if the denouement is not all that the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot would expect, it’s still a great example of how snow can shape a plot.
The same is true of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery from 1931, which I actually talked a bit about already in the last episode about her competent woman characters. One of the barriers that sleuth Emily Trefusis faces in trying to solve this murder committed in a remote village on Dartmoor is the snow, which makes even accessing the scene of the crime very difficult. Captain Trevelyan is found dead at his home one evening while a blizzard is raging outside. So fierce is the snowstorm that no cars can get by on the roads, and trekking through the heavy snow on foot is time consuming and dangerous. I don’t want to give away the really excellent twist to this tale, but let’s just say that when Emily finally works out the solution, it fits in perfectly with the wintry atmosphere and the huge volume of snow present throughout.
Snow is a popular device for putting technology and transport links out of action, in order to isolate murderer and suspects together unavoidably. I’ve already mentioned how this works with trains in Murder on the Orient Express and Farjeon’s Mystery in White, but it works with cars too, as in the Sittaford Mystery, and also in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1934 novel The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey ends up in a remote fenland village on New Year’s Eve because his car careers off the road in a blizzard, so he’s forced to seek shelter at the nearby vicarage, where he gets drawn in to a bellringing escapade that also involves murder. It’s also worth mentioning how Christie adapted this method in her short story “The Erymanthian Boar” in the Poirot centric collection The Labours of Hercules from 1947. The detective is in Switzerland following a previous case, and takes a funicular lift up a mountain to a remote hotel for a few days’ break. On his first night there, the lift is damaged by an avalanche (the snow playing its vital role again), isolating the guests and staff at the hotel on the mountain. This time, it’s also a nice parallel with the myth that Christie is riffing on, since in the original tale Hercules traps the Erymanthian boar after it gets stuck in a snowdrift — evidence that the use of snow as a narrative device stretches back a long way.
Snow is also a regular addition to the classic country house mystery, itself a means by which the closed circle of suspects is created. Cyril Hare’s An English Murder and Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman both contain good examples of this. In the latter, a Dorset manor house being cut off from the world by a sudden snowstorm, which also conveniently takes out the telephone line so that no help can be summoned (coincidentally, the house seems to have its own electricity generator so that the inhabitants don’t die of cold while the events of the novel take place). You might also recognise this setup from Christie’s famously long running play The Mousetrap, which also uses snow to maroon the inhabitants of a guest house during a storm that stops the telephone from working. Her take on this plot actually began life as a radio play requested by Queen Mary, wife of George V, for her 80th birthday. After its broadcast on the BBC, Christie adapted it into a short story, and then later, a play — which you can still see running in London’s West End today.
Manor houses and hotels might be the most common locations for potential murder victims to be snowed in, but there are variations. For instance, in Stairway to Murder by Osmington Mills (the pen name of Vivian Collin Brooks), the characters are confined by snow in a pub in Yorkshire, and in Micheal Innes’s 1940 story There Came Both Mist and Snow, it’s a converted priory. There’s another countryside guest house in Nicholas Blake’s The Sad Variety, but these snowed-in houses don’t even have to be in rural England, although that’s a very common setting — Hilda Lawrence’s 1944 novel Blood Upon the Snow features an estate on the East Coast of the United States. But the important thing for the story is for everybody to stay put, it doesn’t matter as much exactly where. One of my favourite variations comes in The Slype by Russel Thorndike from 1927, where the snowy action takes place around a cathedral close, and a body is actually pulled from a heap of snow in the precinct. It also contains one of the best lines in all detective fiction, when Inspector Macauley of Scotland Yard responds to details of where the body was found with the immortal line “Splendid! Recent footprints in the snow, of course?”
Of course there are footprints; there are always footprints. The snow often helps to make things definite — the presence or absence of footprints shows that somebody either did or didn’t pass that way. No grey areas. In “The Queen’s Square”, a short story from Sayers’s 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, they prove that a suspect did in fact go outside while the foxtrot was being danced at a new year’s eve party, just like he said he did. In Groaning S pinney, a 1950 Christmas set mystery by Gladys Mitchell, there is a rare example of contradictory footprint evidence, though. Some are seen leading into a wood where a body is found, but then more falling snow obliterates them so that the sleuth must remember what they looked like. Mysterious long impressions suggest multiple people have been stepping in the same tracks, too, just to confuse the picture further. This book has been republished recently with a new title, obviously aimed at the Christmas whodunnit market, so you will now find it in a new edition as “Murder in the Snow”, just to further emphasise its importance to the plot.
The reality of Christmas weather conditions in rural England where many of these stories take place never really troubled these writers greatly — we’re actually statistically relatively unlikely to have heavy snow at Christmas here, it being more common for it to fall in January or February. But then when has meteorology or indeed any practicality been allowed to trouble a good mystery plot? The Case of the Abominable Snowman by Nicholas Blake features a corpse hidden inside a snowman, for goodness sake, and I don’t think Blake worried unduly about exactly how one would go about constructing such an edifice or how long it would take.
A fondness for experimenting with snow is by no means confined to authors from the 1920s or 30s, either. The recent popularity of Scandinavian crime writing is testament to how much readers love a wintry landscape as the backdrop for a detective story. Notable modern examples include Anne Holt’s 1222, about a stranded train and a snowbound Norwegian hotel, The Snowman by Jo Nesbo of course, and Whiteout by the Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson. But there is still that particular pleasure in sitting down on a winter’s evening with a book from nearly a century ago, and reading about how the snow closed in while a murderer was on the loose. What could be more festive than that?
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/letitsnow. There, you can also read a full transcript.
That’s it from me in 2019 — thank you so much to everyone who has listened and reviewed and generally made this podcast a pleasure to run. I’m taking a break over Christmas and New Year, but I’ll be back on 8 January with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Victorian Pioneers.