The Murderless Christmas Mystery Transcript

Caroline: When planning a festive celebration, chaos and commotion is the opposite of what we’re wishing for. An awful lot of preparation and precaution goes into trying to create a peaceful and harmonious break from the usual business of the world. We travel, shop, cook, and prep, all so that we can enjoy a few days of uninterrupted relaxation and distraction. Having a dead body fall down a chimney, or discovering that a priceless family treasure has been stolen late on Christmas Eve, is the last thing we want to happen.

That’s in real life. In our festive murder mysteries, that’s exactly what we want. A cosy Christmas scene provides the perfect backdrop for the kind of mayhem that is best enjoyed on the page. Writers have had great fun devising ways to integrate festive traditions with murder mystery plot elements. And over the decades, certain trends have emerged, one of which is the subject of our episode today: the Murderless Christmas Mystery.

Join me, won’t you, for a celebration of rubies in Christmas puddings, festive blackmailers, burglars disguised as Father Christmas, and not a corpse in sight.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


We’ve arrived at the last pledge drive update of the year! I’m delighted to say that we’ve far surpassed the stretch goal of 150 new paying members of the Shedunnit Book Club by the end of the year. A huge thank you to everyone who supported the show, either with money or by recommending it to friends. And now we can all look forward to some exciting new things coming on this feed next year. In celebration of reaching the goal, I have booked the guest for the first of my brand new kind of Shedunnit episode! It will air in the first couple of months next year. But before we can get to that, we have business to attend to. Namely: Christmas.

A reminder about spoilers: as always, there will be some details given about all of the books and stories listed in the episode description, but no major plot elements revealed unless flagged in advance.


The great paradox of the murder mystery is baked into the foundations of the form. These are tales of murder, of stabbing, choking, shooting and poisoning, that we read for fun. We consider them to be cosy, comforting, and escapist, while also turning the pages in the expectation of finding another corpse. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, yet it does.

And there are a few reasons why this apparent contradiction actually helps to make the murder mystery more enjoyable, not less. Of course, the classic golden age detective story is fairly bloodless compared to some more contemporary thrillers: the interwar writers rarely lingered on gory or violent description, and the body is usually tidied away swiftly so that the detective can detect unimpeded by inconvenient bloodstains. Relatives and friends of the victim aren’t usually that distraught, and grieving is not commonly a major part of these books.

Then there’s the fact that this bloody chaos is introduced only so that the writer can clear it up; if the beginning of the book is a little disturbing, we can revel in the reassuring fact that it has all been sorted out by the end and the world made safe again. Plus, these stories produce that frisson of contained danger that makes you want to snuggle a bit deeper on a dark night and read a few more pages while a storm rages safely on the other side of the window. The contrast is what makes them cosy.

And it’s this cosy, comforting element that makes the combination of Christmas and crime work, even though at first glance we might assume that the season of goodwill isn’t exactly built for the murder mystery. But look a little closer and it’s all there. G.K. Chesterton’s master criminal Flambeau probably summed it up best, when he said that “my last crime was a Christmas crime, a cheery, cosy, English middle-class crime; a crime of Charles Dickens. I did it in a good old middle-class house near Putney, a house with a crescent of carriage drive, a house with a stable by the side of it, a house with the name on the two outer gates, a house with a monkey tree. Enough, you know the species. I really think my imitation of Dickens’s style was dexterous and literary.” A properly executed Christmas crime, he is saying, could be straight out of A Christmas Carol or The Pickwick Papers — an event so fitting that that great architect of Christmas cheer himself, Charles Dickens, might have created it.

Families gather and the pressure to “have a good time” is high, so it’s natural that at a certain point the tension will become unbearable and somebody will do something regrettable. Retiring to a remote place for such a Christmas gathering is common, easily forming that closed circle of suspects upon which the fair play mystery thrives. And that general expectation of peace and goodwill that prevails and this time of year is so easily manipulated by someone who intends to deceive for evil ends. It’s no surprise, then that Agatha Christie deliberately set her bloodiest, most violent mystery at this time of year, in the form of 1938’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which sees a gory killing take place at an uncomfortable family reunion. The contrast makes the murder so much more dreadful and impactful, even by golden age standards.

The festive trappings of the Christmas period also lend themselves very well to the classic murder mystery. I’ve read a lot of these books in my time, and there seems to be no aspect of the traditional celebration that hasn’t been involved in a murder in some way or another. Agatha Christie made good use of the family gathering of course, as have plenty of other writers, such as Cyril Hare in An English Murder. J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White takes the classic “travelling home for Christmas” and adds a murderous twist to it. Plenty of books use the fact that dressing up in a Father Christmas costume is an acceptable, even expected, aspect of the season, making it nice and easy for an evildoer to move around unsuspected. The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay, Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer, The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake and Tied Up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh are just a few of the books that make ample use of this trope. Blake also created one of the most memorable snowman-based mysteries in his 1941 book The Case of the Abominable Snowman, but plenty of others have also used those fun wintry creations for sinister purposes.

Christmas food features very heavily in these tales too. Hercule Poirot, invited for a “good old fashioned Christmas” in the country by an acquaintance that inevitably ends up turning criminal, gets to experience festivities that involve oyster soup, boiled turkey and roasted turkey, plum pudding, Elvas plums and Carlsbad plums, almonds, raisins, and crystallized fruit and ginger. Poultry and the things — edible and inedible — that can be put inside it feature in not one but two short stories that I know of: “Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle. And a certain Sexton Blake story by Gwyn Evans, “The Mystery of Mrs Bardell’s Xmas Pudding”, involves a missing pudding that must be hunted down by a quartet of accomplished detectives. Christmas presents, Christmas games — they have all been used for fictional crimes aplenty too. G.K. Chesterton even uses “a proper old English pantomime” as a major plot point in a Christmas mystery story called “The Flying Stars”. Trust me when I say that once you’ve read enough of these books, you will never look at a carol singer or a box of chocolates without suspicion again.


We use a few different terms interchangeably when we talk about the golden age detective story. Whodunnit is obviously a common one, albeit not always entirely accurate — I’ve discussed “howdunnits” and “howcatchems” in a previous episode, and I’d like to cover “whydunnits” in the future. Beyond that, murder mystery, of course, is the default term for these kind of books, but again that’s not always completely correct, especially at Christmas. I haven’t done a full scientific study, but based on my pretty extensive reading of interwar detective novels and stories, I feel fairly confident in saying that there are far more mysteries without murder set during the festive period than there are taking place during the rest of the year. Murder dominates throughout the calendar, of course, but the murder-less Christmas mystery is a substantial sub-genre, I feel. And I don’t think this is because of any squeamishness about introducing corpses at a time of year that is generally associated with peace and goodwill — the regular appearance of dead bodies on or around Christmas Day in the work of everyone from Agatha Christie to Georgette Heyer to Christopher Bush and more is proof of that. No: I think there is something about a mystery without murder that works especially well at Christmas compared to other times of year, and that is why we see so many of them.

One fairly rare version of this is the intended murder mystery — a variant in which a murder is planned but not executed. “The Ghost’s Touch”, a wonderfully spooky short story by Fergus Hume, sees a group of mostly young men gather at an English country house on Christmas Eve for a celebration that is supposed to involve the best of what one character calls “the real old English fashion”, with “holly, wassail-bowl, games, and mistletoe”. One of the bedrooms at the house in question, Ringshaw Grange, is supposed to be haunted by the vengeful spirit of a former inhabitant, who touches and burns the wrist of any sleeper there who is “doomed to die”. Thus cursed, they will then shortly perish in a convenient accident. Of course one of the Christmas revellers contrives to spend the night in the room, with intriguing but ultimately not fatal consequences. This story first appeared in a collection titled The Dancer in Red, which was first published in 1906, so a little before the true golden age period. But I like it both for the way in which it uses elements of the classic festive ghost story, and for the cleverness with which it sidesteps the expected outcome of murder. I think it’s a credit to this little canon of murderless Christmas mysteries that I’m building here.

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After murder, the most popular crime by far to be committed in festive mystery stories is burglary. Once you start looking for it in these books, you see theft everywhere. It is surprising that any characters are leaving Christmas house parties with their valuables still in their possession, really. And there are a few features of these robberies that come up again and again.

The target of the kind of festive theft that is so often featured in Christmas mysteries is usually jewels of some kind. They are eminently portable, easily pocketed and hidden with discretion, not requiring special or conspicuous equipment to transport. It can also easily be a crime of opportunity, rather than one that requires extensive planning. These aren’t usually professional heists undertaken by experienced criminals; as you’ll see, this is a crime far more likely to be done by someone the protagonists know well, taking advantage of the festive setup to relieve their host of some valuables, and all the more horrifying for it. The Father Christmas costume can provide a ready disguise for a canny thief, of course, as Georges Simenon shows in A Maigret Christmas. The sort of intimate gathering that we see in a Christmas mystery, with an extended family, plus staff and select friends, is based on trust. It’s a special time of year — we get out our best things because we want to use them and wear them to mark the occasion, and we feel safe doing so in such a private setting. If you save such things for best, then this is definitely “best”. It can even be a chance to show off your treasures to your nearest and dearest, as we see in a short story like “The Reprisal” by Michael Innes, in which a priceless gold salt cellar originally made for Pope Clement VII is purloined while it is being displayed at a Christmas party.

There are a few reasons why I think writers were more inclined to write burglary-based stories set at Christmas. Firstly, there is a sense in which this is a mostly victimless crime. Even though the golden age detective novel is largely bloodless and the actual violence involved in a murder generally happens off stage, the brutality that resulted in a dead body is still an unavoidable presence in the plot. Whereas if someone pinches an emerald or a sapphire from an extremely rich person, the reader can feel pretty sure that they are not going to really suffer as a result of the loss — and we might actually end up sympathising with the thief in certain circumstances, even. There can be a Robin Hood-like dimension to the morality of the story, robbing the rich to which adds depth and interest. Secondly, we do just like sparkly shiny things at Christmas time, to relieve the winter gloom, and stories that revolve around them feel especially seasonal. And thirdly, with a theft-based story as opposed to one involving murder, it is much easier to create that sense of “order restored” that the golden age mystery craves. Even once a murder mystery is fully solved and the culprit dead or in custody, there is still the fundamental change in the sense that the victim or victims can’t be brought back to life. Whereas once a festive theft is solved, the object in question can easily be handed back to its rightful owner, sometimes even anonymously in the form of an unexpected Christmas present. The thief can be given the chance to see the error of their ways, or even forgiven entirely. It is all reversible.

However, not every festive theft is quite so cosy. The closest I’ve ever come to solving a real life Christmas mystery myself happened when I was a trainee journalist doing a placement at a local newspaper during my holidays from university. My editor assigned me an absolutely classic story to write for that time of year — I was supposed to go around the town and find the “Santa’s post” letter boxes that a local charity was running as a fundraising effort interview the people posting their cards that way as well as the volunteers who were delivering them in costume. Extremely wholesome and a lovely time. Except when I was shadowing one of the Father Christmases on his rounds, collecting the post and emptying the collection tin in each box, we began to discover that somebody had been there before us — every box and tin was already empty. A few quick checks with the charity revealed that there hadn’t been a mix up and nobody else had emptied the boxes for at least a day, so they should have been full to bursting this close to Christmas. A lot of the boxes were on gateposts on residential streets, so we started knocking on doors and asking if anyone had seen the charity post being collected. We were told time and time again that a Father Christmas had been round the previous evening, emptying the boxes and taking the money — more than one person had actually spoken to this figure, thinking they were from the charity. We had an imposter! Somebody had dressed up as Father Christmas and gone round stealing from the boxes in the guise of doing the collection. Even though the amount of money taken was relatively small, the theft felt that much more disrespectful because the target was such a benign, festive activity.

A few weeks later once I was back at university I received an email from my local newspaper editor with the final report — the culprit had been arrested and admitted to the crime, and all the presents and cards had just been dumped in a bin on an industrial estate while the money was pocketed. While this has some of the trappings of a classic festive mystery, I tell you this story mostly to point how much less fun and consequence-free this kind of thing is in real life. The newspaper I was working at served a pretty poor area, and the money that people had donated to the charity in this way were not meaningless amounts for them. A lot of people also missed out on presents adn cards because of this crime. And the money stolen was supposed go towards putting on a Christmas dinner and celebration for homeless people, not exactly an event that could afford to lose out on funding like that. And the ramifications lasted far beyond just that one year. When I returned to work at that newspaper the following Christmas holidays, I learned that the charity was still running their post system, but had replaced all the decorated post boxes with heavy duty lockboxes secured with padlocks and chains. Much less festive.


The grimness of crime in real life aside, I want to conclude by highlighting some of my favourite murderless Christmas mysteries in case you have time to curl up with a book yourself this festive season. Catt Out of the Bag by Clifford Witting is an excellent novel that shows all the best qualities of my little subgenre here, involving as it does the disappearance of a commercial traveller during an evening of carol singing. Also gone is the carol singers’ collection box — did the missing man take it, or is there another thief at work? I’m also keen on “The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep”, a story by the late Victorian writer Catharine Louisa Pirkis featuring her detective Loveday Brooke, which involves a jewel robbery perpetrated on Christmas Eve and a mysterious piece of luggage that may or may not be related to the heist. The Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” I’ve already mentioned, but I will do so again because I love it very much, as well as “Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace, because it is amazing to me that two writers found two different ways to build plots around hiding something inside a bird. An honourable mention must also go to “Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech” by Cyril Hare, a blackmail based story that revolves around mysterious anonymous Christmas cards. I always appreciate a writer going the extra mile to incorporate a more unusual festive trope. There are also plenty of novels and stories published after the golden age of detective fiction that pick up on this murderless trend — a few that I’ve enjoyed include A Highland Christmas by M.C. Beaton, Deck The Halls by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark and “Christmas Eve” by S.C. Roberts.

But my absolute favourite murderless Christmas mystery is, unsurprisingly, by Dorothy L. Sayers. “The Necklace of Pearls” is a Lord Peter Wimsey story from her 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, and sees the titled sleuth spending the festive period as part of a country house party hosted by Sir Septimus Shale. I like the hints we get about the interior design and social fashions of this early 1930s moment – Lady Shale is partial to “diagrammatic furniture made of steel” and “ anti-grammatical poets”, we are told, but indulges her husband in his desire for an old-fashioned Christmas with plum pudding and party games. It is during one of these — the guessing game “Animal, Vegetable and Mineral” — that Margharita Shale’s extremely valuable pearl necklace goes missing. Since the room was essentially a sealed unit with many witnesses to it being so, the party must confront the uncomfortable truth that it has to have been one of their number who took it. The necklace also cannot have yet been removed from the immediate area, and so each guest is searched. Sayers is able to derive a lot of humour and gossipy revelation by sharing the contents of each person’s pockets, and then still surprising the reader with her extremely festive solution to this apparently impossible crime.

If you are craving the comfort and ingenuity of a good mystery this festive season, but would perhaps like to take a break from having to think about death for a moment, I highly recommend exploring the possibilities of the murderless Christmas mystery. There is plenty of variety to be found within this little niche — burglary, blackmail, kidnapping, poison pen campaigns, and more — while still affording you that little pause from having to contemplate your own mortality. What more could you want for Christmas?


This episode of Shedunnit was written, produced and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find a full list of books mentioned at I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at

Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

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