By the 1970s Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976) was acknowledged as one of the greatest detective story writers of all time. People all over the world bought a Christie mystery for Christmas. The author undoubtedly enjoyed the popularity of her Christmas books, but she also enjoyed Christmas itself. As she wrote:
After my father’s death, my mother and I always spent Christmas with my brother-in-law’s family in the north of England—and what superb Christmases they were for a child to remember! Abney Hall had everything! The garden boasted a waterfall, a stream, and a tunnel under the drive! The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions. I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry! The boys of the family and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat most on Christmas Day. Oyster Soup and Turbot went down without undue zest, but then came Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey and an enormous Sirloin of Beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had Plum Pudding, Mince-pies, Trifle and every kind of dessert. During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were, sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!
And in the Foreward to The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding:
What a day of delight from ‘Stockings’ in bed in the morning, Church and all the Christmas hymns, Christmas dinner, Presents, and the final Lighting of the Christmas Tree!
Despite Dame Agatha’s love of Christmas, only three of her mysteries take place during that festive season. The earliest of the three, “A Christmas Tragedy,” (The Thirteen Problems, 1932), 21 pages, is set in Keston Spa Hydro, a health resort, where Jane Marple is a guest. Four days before Christmas, the Spa’s hall porter dies of pneumonia, and a housemaid dies of “a septic finger.” Miss Marple, who experiences a “curiously eerie feeling in the air,” suspects that Mr. Sanders, a guest at the Spa, will kill his wife for her money, and attempt to make her death look like an accident. Miss Marple plans to set a trap for him, but before she can do so, the woman is dead.
When Sanders returns from Christmas shopping, he asks Miss Marple and another guest to come upstairs to help him select which of three evening bags he should give his wife. When they reach the couple’s room, they find Mrs. Sanders, apparently killed by a thief. Miss Marple is convinced Sanders murdered his wife, despite his airtight alibi. The ingenious solution to the mystery involves a locked cupboard where the dead woman stored Christmas presents for her husband, and a red felt hat on the floor near the body. (To say more would spoil the story.) The story is well up to Christie’s standards, but is far from Christmassy, and the Spa provides none of the usual holiday trimmings.
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, 1938, 257 pages, (also published as A Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), a family gathers on December 22 in a large country house to celebrate the holiday season. The house is owned by a vicious old man who enjoys insulting and tormenting his relatives. On Christmas Eve, the old man is murdered. Fortunately, Poirot is visiting a neighbor, and is summoned to solve the crime.
Although Christmas is mentioned frequently, the house is decidedly unfestive—no decorations, no tree, no music, no Yule log, no gifts. When a young guest expresses surprise at the absence of any of the usual signs of Christmas in the house, another guest shows her a storeroom full of decorations, Christmas food, and wrapped gifts—ready for, as he says, “a Christmas uncomplicated by murder.”
Instead of tokens of Christmas, Christie gives the reader clues both real and false, and a magnificent puzzle. Most readers will overlook or misinterpret important clues, but not Poirot, who puts together all the pieces, including how the murder occurred in a locked room.
Christie’s last Christmas story, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding,” (in the book by the same name, which includes five additional shorter stories), 1960, (90 pages) also stars Poirot. A discreet government official asks Poirot to spend an old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside, ostensibly as a guest, but in fact to solve a problem involving a foreign prince and the theft of a ruby. Poirot is about to refuse, when he learns that Kings Lacey, where he will stay, is centrally heated, which overcomes his major objection to country houses in winter: the likelihood of extreme discomfort. (This is a typical insight into Poirot’s personality.)
He goes to Kings Lacey, and on arrival learns that his hosts expect his help with another problem, their daughter’s involvement with an unsuitable young man. As if that weren’t enough, Bridget, a teenaged guest, is found in the snow, a red stain on her white wool wrap, and the ruby clasped in her hand.
Naturally, Poirot is able to solve all of the mysteries and problems. And in this mystery, Christie recreates her childhood Christmas, with stockings and a tree, and a fabulous feast. Small wonder that, despite the challenges Poirot encounters at Kings Lacey, he “had a very good Christmas.”
(First appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Crime for the Holidays, Volume 25, No. 1, Spring 2009)