P.D. James passed away in 2014, but a fresh collection of four holiday murder mysteries arrived on the lit scene just in time for Christmas 2016. I’ll admit I’m a newcomer to the genre, and even to James herself—I’d only read Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) prior to this assignment—but these stories make me eager to read more, and more. Delightfully disturbing, these four selections from the James archives remind readers just how unnervingly engaging murder can be. As Val McDermid notes in the foreword, James scrutinized the form of the short murder mystery before she ever attempted it herself, and subsequently, perhaps the greatest pleasure of these four is their innate self-awareness—the way James nods to those who came before her while simultaneously inspiring her followers.
For example, the title story “The Mistletoe Murder” is so disarmingly meta in nature I felt more of a voyeur of James’ development as a writer than a reader of entertaining mystery fiction. James cheekily writes, “Mistletoe plays only a small part in the mystery but I’ve always liked alliteration in my titles” (4). James likewise is playing with form here but so self-consciously so that it’s hard not to believe the premise of the story—that a grieving war widow could witness and solve a murder without training, without forensics, based solely on observation and the extra little clue of the mistletoe. The mistletoe itself then becomes a symbol, a vehicle through which to explore the metafiction. Moreover, James makes overt reference to her literary predecessors in this story—“I expect you are thinking that this is typical Agatha Christie” (21)—but I sense Poe lurking in dark corners, too. I may be a newcomer to James, but I am a sometime scholar of both Poe and Doyle, two men whose three names certainly need not be clarified here, so established their presence within the genre.
Yet if “Mistletoe” is more Christie than Poe, the second story in the collection, “A Very Commonplace Murder,” is more Poe than Christie. A man with a secret revisits a solved case: “It was the first time he had been back since it all happened sixteen years ago. He came neither as a pilgrim nor a penitent” (44). The fact that James must allow this character this assertion is troubling from the start of the story—but I won’t spoil your journey through this tale with more. Suffice it to say that Poe’s heart (his tell-tale heart?) beats and beats here, but less erratically so. In the preface to this slim volume, James writes: “All [narrative elements] should command the most ingenious element of the story: the shock of surprise” (xvi). The heart of this story is shock, for James delivers not one but two surprises before she’s satisfied. The most memorable line—“The adjectives smeared his mind” (75)—foreshadowed my own sentiments rather spookily. I read all of the stories in this collection at least twice, but this one I had to read twice because the story unfolded so subtly I didn’t quite believe my “smeared” mind during the denouement.
I seek to be displaced in my reading, no matter the genre, and the first two stories deliver. The last two stories—“The Boxdale Inheritance” and “The Twelve Clues of Christmas”—seem, on first glance, less intense, less challenging, but a second read slyly exonerates them. Perhaps these last stories seem cozier because James reintroduces her comfy serial character, Adam Dalgliesh. I’m not overly familiar with this character myself, but James makes him feel immediately accessible to her readers, not matter our history with her previous works: “‘You see, my dear Adam,’ explained the Canon gently, as he walked […] under the vicarage elms…” (81). A family saga that hinges on one night ensues, but Dalgliesh, of course, is able to recreate the true events in their proper sequence. “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” develops along a similar pattern with equally satisfying results. Indeed, the twelve clues of this particular story echo like Sherlockian chimes. And what a marvelous way to end this posthumous collection—to bring the reader back to James’ initial veneration of the murder mystery: Dalgliesh pronounces, “My dear Aunt Jane, I don’t think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie” (152). From a burgeoning fan of P.D. James, I’d only add that these four stories are also pure pleasure.
The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories