Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Murder for Christmas

It's that magical time of year when children dream of Santa and writers realize it's too late to send a Christmas mystery story to that anthology or magazine that had issued a call back in May.

I'm going to sound humbuggy on this, but I don't like Christmas mysteries, or any seasonal mystery for that matter. Which isn't to say I don't like stories that are set around Christmas.

This weekend I was in one of our closets pulling out the Christmas decorations and I found an anthology called Murder for Christmas that someone had given me twenty years ago. It's a big volume of Christmas-themed mystery stories. I remember reading a few stories when I got it and then putting it aside because Christmas had passed.

And that's the point. Why read a Christmas story after Christmas? It's like a Santa train set or a book of yuletide recipes. No matter how much you like trains or how much you like cooking neither the Santa train nor the figgy pudding recipe make sense after the season.

So it was with this anthology. There was only one memorable story in it and that one was, ironically, the one story that was not Christmas-themed. The story was called "Mr. Big" and it was written by Woody Allen. It's a good story, written in Woody Allen's distinctive voice, but not what you would call a Christmas story. It qualified for the anthology by virtue of one of the clues—a racehorse named Santa Baby.

As I said, I don't have a problem with stories set at Christmas, but I pass on what I call tinsel stories. Stories with no substance but which use some aspect of Christmas as an excuse. You can usually spot them by the title. (These titles are my own invention, any resemblance to real stories is a shame.)

  • "The Christmas Card Murders." (Pass!) 
  • "Death by Eggnog." (No way!)
  • "Slay Bells Ring." (Not for me!)
  • "Gold, Frankincense and Murder." (Heaven forbid!)

I believe a good story is worth reading or viewing at any time, not just during the season. Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life should be viewed throughout the year, not just at Christmas, because it's not a Christmas story. It's about a man discovering himself, about the sacrifices he makes. And it's about good versus evil, despair and redemption. There's no murder, but it's as hardboiled as any story. Is there anybody more evil than Potter? The Christmas part is only the last quarter of the film. Too bad the movie has been hijacked by the season.

My vote for great Christmas story which stands the test of time and which can be read (or viewed if you prefer) all year round is Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. The story begins in a speakeasy the day before Christmas with two of the most engaging sleuths in literature, Nick and Nora Charles.
Nora said, "She's pretty."
"If you like them like that."
She grinned at me. "You got types?"
"Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."
If you want cute for Christmas, there's Asta the schnauzer who knocks over a table of toys at Lord and Taylor's.

You want Christmas mayhem? How about the scene in the movie where Nick, nursing a hangover, uses a rubber band and paper clips to shoot ornaments off the tree. Or the scene where Nick knocks out Nora while trying to keep her from being shot by Morelli. After Nick revives her, Nora says, "You damned fool! You didn't have to knock me cold. I knew you'd take him, but I wanted to see it." To which the police lieutenant says, "There's a girl with hair on her chest."

If it's holiday excess you're looking for, The Thin Man has that too. When a reporter asks Nora what case Nick is working on, she says, "A case of Scotch. Pitch in and help him."

Afraid this story is another sappy Christmas story? Then wait for it, the best Christmas sentiment in all mysterydom, uttered by the inimitable Nora:
"The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I'll kill 'em."
That's how I like my murder for Christmas. Lanky brunettes, guys with guns, and six martinis lined up on the bar. A Christmas toast—make that six—to the best Christmas mystery story ever. Hammett published The Thin Man 78 years ago and it's still as fresh as Wonderful Life and fresher than most stories that try to cash in on the season but which are staler than day-old gingerbread.

So do you have a favorite Christmas mystery, one that you enjoy even in July?

Mark Troy
Hawaiian Eye Blog
Check out my ebooks in the iBook, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony and Smashwords stores.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Loved you post, Mark. You hit the nail on the head to use a popular cliche. Marilyn

Morgan Mandel said...

Right now I have some free Christmas books on my kindle, and have no time to enjoy them. I'm not sure if I'll feel like reading them later.

It's true that holiday books get dated very fast. Since I'm not a quick writer, it wouldn't be worth it to go that route. My books have holidays inside of them, but the holiday is not the focus of the book.

Morgan Mandel

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