Mystery Books for Sale

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by P.D. James
Knopf , October 2016
176 pages
ISBN: 0451494148

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There's something satisfying about a traditional mystery set during Christmas or Boxing Day—family all gathered, snow falling around a country mansion, and then murder. In this slender collection of four stories, the late P.D. James used these tropes, though tongue-in-cheek. . In one of the stories, the narrator even says, "I expect you are thinking that this is typical Agatha Christie, and you are right … And it seems entirely appropriate that the body should have been discovered in the library, that most fatal room in popular British fiction."

But here's the thing: P.D. James always took the traditional mystery and gave it her own twist. These four stories are no exception. Even in a condensed form, James laid out all the clues for her readers, playing fair but still pulling off the surprise ending.

Two of the stories feature her well-known detective, Adam Dalgliesh. In one, "The Boxdale Inheritance," the chief superintendent investigates a very cold case after his godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale, hesitates to accept a legacy gift from a relative. The relative had been accused of poisoning her elderly husband, but was cleared in a trial—sixty-seven years ago. Boxdale wants to make sure he isn't taking tainted money and asks Dalgliesh to look into the old case records.

In the other story, "The Twelve Clues of Christmas," Dalgliesh is only a sergeant, on his way to visit his Aunt Jane's cottage in Suffolk. He's stopped by a stranger on the road, who says his uncle has committed suicide during the family Christmas gathering. But we—and Dalgliesh —know better. It's another holiday murder.

But the best of the stories may be "The Mistletoe Murder," narrated by a bestselling crime fiction author who recalls the year that, as a young war widow, she was invited to her grandmother's house for what should have been a quiet Christmas—until murder ensued. It's the narrator, with an eye for detail, who figures out what has happened.

The other story, "A Very Commonplace Murder," is narrated by a very reluctant witness who seesaws about whether to help a man wrongly accused of murder.

Since P.D. James' death in 2014, I haven't expected to read any more of her stories. But James was often commissioned by magazines to write short stories for Christmas, and these four have now been collected in a volume that also includes an essay on short stories by James and a foreword by crime writer Val McDermid. For those of us who miss James greatly, this is a wonderful holiday gift.

§ Lourdes Venard is an independent editor who divides her time between New York and Maui.

Reviewed by Lourdes Venard, November 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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