You wouldn’t think that the merriest season of the year would have any affinity for murder — until you factor in extended time with the relatives, getting snowed in, flight delays or the forced company of weird strangers when you travel.
And all of those things call for having a book to escape into. Here are a few suggestions for holiday-themed reading:
- THE TURNOUT by Megan Abbott. A space heater in the studio of a family-owned dance school on the even of the Christmas “Nutcracker” season turn visions of sugar plum fairies into a nightmare come true. A seductive, manipulative contractor threatens not just to tear up the dance studio but to tear down the curtains that have hidden family secrets and resentments for decades.
- SNOW by John Banville. Detective Inspector St. John Strafford, a Protestant police officer, is called from Dublin to a country house to investigate the murder of a Catholic priest, Father Tom Lawless. His supervisor wants no trouble with the archbishop. The archbishop wants the matter handled quickly and quietly. Strafford wants the crime solved and not even a visit to the archbishop’s chilly weekend mansion is enough to intimidate him.
- THE DARKEST EVENING by Ann Cleeves. Set in the frosty weeks before Christmas, this mystery leads DI Vera Stanhope to the stately home where her father grew up. The house has since passed into another branch of the family. Vera once again is on the outside looking in. Lost on a snowy evening, she discovers a car driven off the road with the driver’s side door hanging open. In the back seat is a baby. Vera heads to the brightly lit Brockburn, where a fund-raise is being held. Soon after she arrives, a neighboring farmer drives up and reports he’s found the body of a dead woman, Lorna Falstone, the unmarried single mother of the baby Vera found. This story weaves tales of families together: loud, happy ones; cold, silent ones; conflicted ones; informal ones; and work-related families.
- THE SECRET SANTA by Trish Harnetiaux. Realtor Claudine Calhoun believes she is about the pull off a sales coup that will rescue her firm from bankruptcy. Pop princess Zara has asked to see Claudine’s top listing: Montague House. The firm had been planning to hold its annual Christmas party there. It’s a perfect way to showcase the beauty of an already spectacular house. But as the guests participate in a Secret Santa game, a humbly wrapped present reveals something that exposes a secret Claudine has been hiding since her purchase of the property years ago.
- THE DEAD OF WINTER by Peter Kirby. Major Crimes Chief Luc Vanier is spending a lonely Christmas eve nursing his losses when he gets a call about the body of a homeless person at a subway station. It’s the fifth such body found that evening. All appear to be homeless victims sleeping rough. And once the autopsies are done, it’s clear it was murder in each case. All were poisoned with potassium cyanide.
- FROST AT CHRISTMAS by R. D. Wingfield. This police procedural covers four days on the beat of DI Jack Frost just before Christmas. Shabby and rumpled, irreverent and forgetful of deadlines, Frost is Superintendent Harry Mullett’s least favorite employee. But at the moment he is the only detective available to investigate the disappearance of the eight-year-old daughter of a local prostitute. Regardless of Mullett’s priorities, Frost is also faced with the skeleton of a man who went missing 32 years ago with £20,000 belonging to a bank, a jewelry heist on main street and thefts of electronics equipment from a local factory.
- GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford. This is a delightful young adult book that features a fantastical house, now serving as an inn, with a history of smugglers. An eccentric mix of holiday travelers have arrived. Milo, son of the owners, investigates a series of thefts from guests’ rooms. A fun book.
- MURDER AT MELROSE COURT by Karen Baugh Menuhin. A former pilot in the Great War, what Maj. Heathcliff Lennox does not need is a dead body on his doorstep. By Christmas Eve, which Maj. Lennox is celebrating with his uncle at Melrose Court, there’s another dead body, but this time the major himself is the prime suspect. A lovely cozy set in the 1920s.
- MYSTERY IN WHITE; A CHRISTMAS CRIME STORY by J. Jefferson Farjeon. This book, featuring six British travelers on a snowbound train, has one of the loveliest descriptions of the vagaries of winter weather I’ve ever read.
- THE SANTA KLAUS MURDER by Mavis Doriel Hay. This is a vintage country house murder where the grumpy and disgruntled Mebury family has gathered for a traditional holiday celebration. It’s tradition, that is, until pater familias Sir Oswald Melbury is shot in his own study.
- MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS; A MORDECAI TREMAINE MYSTERY by Francis Duncan. Another classic from the Golden Age of Detection, this is the first of Duncan’s series featuring retired tobacconist and amateur sleuth Mordecai Tremaine. Tremaine is the insider at a country house Christmas where the head of a family is flamboyantly killed beside the Christmas tree.
- PORTRAIT OF A MURDERER: A CHRISTMAS CRIME STORY by Anne Meredith. Here is the rare mystery where the author tells you who the murderer is early in the story. The mystery is how it can be proven, and so bring the miscreant to justice.
- THE WINTER MYSTERY by Faith Martin. Jenny Starling decides that taking a holiday job cooking for a wealthy farm family in Oxfordshire is a better idea than spending Christmas in her Oxford bed-sit with only a gas ring to cook on. Then she learns that murder is on the menu. Jenny runs circles around the local police in this cozy mystery that reads like a novel from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
These books have a Christmas or holiday setting or theme.
- THE ICE SWIMMER by Kjell Ola Dahl. This book’s only link to Christmas is that it takes place during the holiday season in Oslo. So while detectives investigate, they also take time out to prepare traditional dishes, put up decorations and buy gifts for friends and family.
- NOVEMBER ROAD by Lou Berney. Technically, this is more of a Thanksgiving book than a Christmas book, but it works just as well to keep you entertained during a holiday. While this book does feature murder, it’s a romance in the tragic style of Shakespeare.
- LAST SEEN by J. L. Coucette. Psychotherapist Pepper Hunt has bad associations with Christmas: two years ago, her husband and his lover (whom Pepper had been unaware of) were murdered. Now, with a pre-Christmas blizzard threatening, one of her patients vanishes.