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The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories


The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories

I have loved P. D. James for decades. It was a welcome surprise, then, to see her name on this small, elegant collection of stories. Over her many years of writing, she had been asked to write Christmas stories for various publications, and these four are the best of the best.

“The Mistletoe Murder” is told from the point of view of “a bestselling crime novelist” and revisits a suspicious death of 52 Christmases ago; the successful writer is now the only member of that family still alive and can tell the authentic story. Each detail of the carefully laid plan to murder a guest is explained and recounted with precision. Yes, it’s a drawing room murder with a nod to the Golden Age of Mystery with the four Queens of Crime --- Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh --- complete with the locked door with the key on the inside. The motive for the crime is brutal and calculating. Indeed, there is no doubt that there will be horrific events unfolding even from the early description of Stutleigh Manor as the novelist arrives: looming up out of darkness, a “stark shape against a grey sky pierced with a few high stars.” True to her craft, James holds our attention until the last, surprising sentence.

"There is always something wonderful about reconnecting with an old friend, and this reunion was perfect."

The second story, “A Very Commonplace Murder,” reveals a middle-aged man’s quirks about voyeurism as he inadvertently witnesses a lurid murder. He attends the trial of the individual who was arrested, knowing full well that the suspect is innocent, and listens as the death sentence is “pronounced, sounding doubly horrible spoken in soft judicial tones.”

A grand welcome to Adam Dalgliesh, who appears in the last two stories as a young man --- always inquisitive, always polite, always identifying the gruesome in the ordinary. He must establish the innocence of his dear godfather’s Great Aunt Allie so that “The Boxdale Inheritance” is free of taint. He revisits Colebrook Croft and puts together what must have happened, not what the police said occurred at the time, and takes his theory to a dying woman. He writes four words on a piece of paper as a way of introduction, revealing the solution and completing the case. There is simplicity in the woman’s words, “the rich only pay once,” and we understand the deep irony in the final disposition of the inheritance.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas” is a clever, ritualized march through the discovery of a nefarious murder plot in the Harkerville family. The young detective Dalgliesh takes modest pleasure in pointing out the clues to the local inspector and establishing the link to the ugly crime. Very Agatha Christie. At last, “the inspector’s blue-eyed boy…with a brain between his ears and eyes in his head” joins his Aunt Jane in her cottage by the sea for a Christmas boeuf bourguignon and winter salad.

There is always something wonderful about reconnecting with an old friend, and this reunion was perfect. In the Preface, Baroness James explains that writing a short story is difficult because of the necessary economy of words for plot and characterization, and she says each sentence of the narrative should inexorably lead to the denouement. Then the reader should be surprised, but not feel cheated. Precisely, exquisitely done.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on December 9, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories
by P. D. James

  • Publication Date: October 24, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101973803
  • ISBN-13: 9781101973806