I’ve never been one for a beach read at the beach. Recently in Ventura and Monterey, I read a New-Jersey-set legal thriller (Robyn Gigl’s Survivor Guilt), a desert-set horror (Catriona Ward’s Sunset), and Raynor Winn’s Landlines.
But I do love a Christmas book for Christmas. A winter break in New York in 2004 started it. I was staying in a hotel on Central Park South overlooking the Wollman rink, and, on a foray to the old Barnes and Noble at the Lincoln Center (now long gone, sadly), I saw a front-of-the-shop display of:
The Christmas Thief, by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark
It was just out, set in New York, featuring Willy and Alvirah Meehan, who lived on Central Park South, just like me (except I “lived” there for ten days and they had won the lottery and bought a flat). It was one of the most perfect Christmas crime experiences of my life. Last year, doing an Agatha Christie jigsaw while listening to Christie at Christmas on Radio 4 came close, but I wasn’t in Manhattan.
Since then, I’ve read and re-read all of the Higgins Clarks’ stories about the lottery-winning plumber and house cleaner, Christmas after Christmas. They’re perfect little seasonal bon-bons.
And I’m glad there was occasion to mention Dame Agatha, because I’m not going to choose Hercule Poirot’s Christmas for this list. Not, I’m falling over myself to add, because it’s not wonderful, but more because it doesn’t need the boost. Instead, from The Golden Age—from that time and place where if you were rich and elderly you had a private secretary, possibly a nurse too, and sponging relatives in every spare bedroom—I’m plumping for:
Tied Up in Tinsel, by Ngaio Marsh
The action takes place in a country house, right enough. And there’s a gathering of old frenemies too. But, as is often the case with Marsh, nothing’s quite as cozy as it seems. The staff of the stately pile are all convicted murderers, out on parole; thus has the lord of the manor solved the servant problem. So when the corpse hits the parquet, as corpses must in this genre, there’s no shortage of suspects. By 1972, when this book was published, Marsh was unapologetically playing with the Golden-Age tropes and never better than here, her twenty-seventh entry in the series, with nothing to prove and fun to be had.
Snow Blind, by PJ Tracy
From much earlier in a long-running series (it’s book four), Snow Blind, by PJ Tracy is more classic of its type. It’s a fast-paced, multi-POV, mystery/thriller with jaded cops, tech wizards, a rookie woman sheriff with a lot to prove, a shadowy “facility” out in the wilds of Minnesota, and—oh yeah—dead policemen propped up and covered in snow at a family fun day.
What lifts these novels—known as the Monkeewrench series—so high above others are the characters. The two cops, Rolseth and Magozzi, bicker and kvetch their way through heat, humidity, mosquitoes, floods, hurricanes and this time snow in Minneapolis, while the Monkeewrench crew of white-hat hackers themselves is one of the best misfit found families in crime fiction.
Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer
There’s no one much to love in my next choice. Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer takes us right back to the heart of the Golden Age: a Christmas country house party in 1941 and a widely hated old man, clutching the purse strings while his spoiled relations sulk away the season and wait for him to die. Until someone doesn’t. Heyer is better known for her regency romances (over thirty of them) and published only four true detective stories (as well as eight other crime novels), besides claiming she didn’t particularly like doing them. So really, she had no business taking on the toughest of crime-writing gigs and carrying it off it so sickeningly well. This is a locked-room story, you see. Fair play, confounding and satisfying in the end, the plot is tight enough to make fellowcrime writers despair; the parade of brattish guests are really only a horrificilarous bonus. If I’ve watched too many Christmas films and eaten too many Lindor balls, Envious Casca is just the right kind of bitter pick-me-up.
Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp
And speaking of Christmas films . . . my last pick on this list is chosen to right a great wrong. Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp is an action thriller set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, with guns galore, more explosions than a bag of party poppers and a hero who could kill you with a steely glare and a swipe of his chiseled jawline.
Doesn’t sound familiar? Will it help to hear that the damsel in distress is called Ms. Gennaro? That Sgt Al Powell helps the hero? That the villain, Herr Gruber, takes over a skyscraper? Yippee-ki-yay, mystery lovers, it’s Die Hard.
Which should be on the list of best Christmas films right after White Christmas and before It’s a Wonderful Life. You could bump Love, Actually to make room, as far as I’m concerned. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Nothing Lasts Forever is not great. It was the humor in Die Hard that not only made this film terrific but changed the rules for action movies ever after. No more pompous bombast. Quips were it. (Obviously, not everyone got the memo sneezeStephenSeagalsneeze.) So, I put it to you that the overlooking of Die Hard on Christmas film lists is so egregious that including a not-perfect book here to balance the scales is only fair.
Merry Christmas and happy reading!