The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

Festive felons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

PD James was one of my favourite crime writers for many years, so much so that for a couple of decades she was one of my elite group of “must read on publication day” authors even back when this meant paying expensive hardback prices rather than waiting for up to a year for the paperback to come out. It’s been a long time though since I revisited her, so I was keen to see if her magic would still work for me in this collection. There are four stories in the audiobook, each quite substantial in terms of length. They were originally written as special short stories for Christmas editions of magazines and newspapers and cover a wide time period from the late ’60s to the mid-’90s. As one would expect, the quality is variable, but only within the range of good to excellent.

I listened to the audiobook version, with two stories each narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, both of whom give excellent performances. There is also a short introduction, narrated by Agutter, in which James considers the differences between writing in short and long form, and discusses the place of the short story in the history of crime fiction. (I believe there’s a further introduction from Val McDermid in the paper book, but that’s not included in the audio version.)

The Mistletoe Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1995

A country house mystery with the traditional body in the library! This is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, a war widow who is visiting her grandmother over Christmas while WW2 is still underway. An unexpected and unpleasant guest arrives and is promptly murdered. The narrator uses her status as a family member to uncover the secrets that led to his death. While very well written, I found this a rather uneasy mix of traditional golden age style with a storyline that felt too modern in its concerns to quite fit that approach. It’s also very dark and somewhat depressing for a Christmas story, I felt. Murder is always fun, but the war aspect and the bleakness of the motivation in this aren’t. I admired this story more than I enjoyed it.

* * *

A Very Commonplace Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1969

This is James at her best. Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged lawyer’s clerk, witnesses something that would be vitally important evidence in a murder trial. But since he was doing something he shouldn’t have been at the time, he finds himself reluctant to come forward. This is a deliciously wicked tale where we see Gabriel twist his conscience into knots to justify his actions – a beautifully constructed psychological study of a weak and not very nice man. James maybe goes a little far at the end, but I found this added the touch of melodrama the story needed to make it into a shivery chiller – perfect seasonal entertainment!

* * *

The Twelve Clues of Christmas narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1996

The first of two stories featuring James’ long-running detective, Adam Dalgleish. In this one, Dalgleish is still a young copper with his name to make. He is driving through the snow to spend Christmas at his aunt’s Suffolk house when he is stopped by a man who asks for his help. The man’s uncle, the curmudgeonly old owner of Harkerville Hall, has apparently committed suicide, but Dalgleish soon finds clues that suggest it may have been murder. Again, James is trying to reproduce golden age style here and openly nods to Agatha Christie, as she also did in The Mistletoe Murder. This one works better in that the motivation is more appropriate to the golden age era, and it’s certainly entertaining, but for me it doesn’t have the depth that James achieves when she sticks more to her own style.

* * *

The Boxdale Inheritance narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1979

Dalgleish is asked to look into an old murder by his elderly godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale. The Canon’s grandfather died of arsenic poisoning many decades ago. His young second wife was tried for the crime but found not guilty. Now she has left the Canon some money in her will, but his conscience won’t let him accept unless he is sure she didn’t acquire it by murder. Again a much more traditionally James-ian story in this one, concentrating more on the psychology of the characters than on clues and tricks, though there’s some of that too. In the short space available, James hasn’t much time to develop a cast of suspects, so Dalgleish’s detection seems a bit too slick. But this is well outweighed by the storytelling and characterisation. Another excellent one to end on.

* * *

PD James

I found it interesting that I enjoyed the two early stories considerably more than the ones from the ’90s. This chimes with my feelings about James’ novels – that she lost her spark towards the end of her career and began to get too involved in ‘issues’ or general ‘cleverness’ at the expense of her real strength – excellent psychological studies. Her ‘gentleman detective’ also started to feel rather out of place among the more realistic police officers of modern crime fiction, and her later books felt somewhat anachronistic – almost out-dated. But she retained her story-telling skills throughout, and this shows through in the later stories from this collection too. Of course, even when she may have gone off the boil a little, a writer of the stature and skill of PD James was still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A thoroughly enjoyable set of stories overall, then, that would work just as well for newcomers as established fans.

Amazon UK Link
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Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

40 thoughts on “The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

  1. I’m interested in your comment about the earlier stories being better than the later ones, because as I read the early part of your post where you talk of buying her novels on publication date my first thought was “yes, the early ones, but not the last two or three”. I have gone back and read those earlier novels again, but have felt no desire to do the same with the others.

    • Yes, from the other comments, it appears we’re not alone in feeling she fell below her own standards towards the latter books. It’s partly because of my disappointment in them that I haven’t re-read any of the earlier ones for years, but the earlier stories in this collection have reminded me of how good she was back then. Must try to fit in a couple sometime…

  2. PD James has been a favourite of my mum’s for years and I would dip in and out of her collection when I was a youngster. I never quite took to her like I did Agatha Christie, but I am a huge admirer nonetheless. I’m actually thinking that I might get this for Mumsie for Christmas!
    Also, on the subject of the traditional golden age mysteries with modern styles / motivations, I read an interesting blog just this morning on the very same thing. I’ll leave a link as I think you might enjoy it, but feel free to remove if you wish 🙂

    • I loved her back in the seventies and eighties but felt she went downhill after that – or else she stayed the same but crime fiction changed around her, I’m not sure which. I rather wish there was a compulsory retirement age for authors…

      Interesting article – thanks for that! I’ve just left a comment saying that I think it’s easy to overlook cosies when mourning the demise of the GAD. For some reason, crime readers are often quite snooty about cosies, but then they used to be quite snooty about Ms Christie too – some still are! But I think the likes of John Gaspard (the one with the stage magician ‘tec I’m always going on about) is very golden age in style, including motives and methods, and is as well written and well plotted as most of the ones coming out in the true golden age – bearing in mind all the rubbish from those days is long out of print, as will most of the rubbish from today be soon, leaving only the best behind…

      • I’m glad you liked the article, I did think of you as I read it. Very interesting blog, that, they cover all sorts of obscure crime fiction and mystery. I feel that there is definitely still a market for GAD-style and, as such, by contrast there will always be detractors. But when it’s good (like Christie and Gaspard!) it’s just the most delightful read!
        And I agree about retirement age for authors. I love Terry Pratchett like a god but his later books lacked a certain magic – and I hate myself for saying that out loud! I hope someone pokes me with a stick when the time comes to hang up my pen… 😉

  3. It’s really interesting that you see that difference between her earlier work and her later work, FictionFan. I think many authors, especially those who are as prolific as she was, do change their style (or, perhaps, don’t?) as time goes by, so that their work doesn’t resonate as well later. Hmmmm….much to think about here, for which thanks.

    • Yes, I’m not sure now if it was that PD James changed or that she stayed the same and the world changed round her, but I do find a lot of great writers who go on long past what would be retirement age in any other field tend to feel anachronistic towards the end. Not surprising – there are days when I feel distinctly anachronistic myself! 😉

    • She really was great in her day, but if you do try her, try to get one of her books from the ’70s or ’80s rather than her later ones – they really are so much better! 😀

  4. I was a big fan of P.D. James’ early books, but I lost interest about half way in, I think because I found Dalgleish became rather unconvincing – by that time, I had had too much to do with too many real policemen, who were not like him!

    • I found Dalgleish got progressively less credible as time went on too, and I also found her settings began to feel outdated and increasingly snobbish. Like private health clinics instead of NHS ones and suchlike. I’m getting up a petition for a compulsory retirement age for writers…

  5. I have this idea in my head that if a story or book is Christmas themed, it must be very, very Christmasy. Like, someone should be murdered with a sharpened candy cane, and the detective must ponder the clues while drinking hot cocoa that inevitably ends up in his mustache, that sort of thing.

  6. I seem to recall my mom reading lots of P.D. James, but I never managed to get into her novels. From your interesting review here, perhaps I ought to try again. I find it interesting how we can look back over a writer’s career and see changes/growth in their skill level — gives me hope, you know!

    • I have a feeling her books will have dated more than a lot of authors. Because I read them at the time they were coming out they were fine, but I’m not sure how they’d read in retrospect. However, this collection has encouraged me to try a re-read of a couple of the early ones, so we’ll see…! 😉

    • I do think a lot of authors would be well served by retiring – lots of them finish their careers with a few less than stellar books (look at Agatha Christie!) and it kinda tarnishes their reputation a little. I always hate the idea of a new reader picking up one of the late books and being put off the author altogether…

  7. A great review and she was also a writer that I also had on my ‘must-read’ list – I was a huge fan of Adam Dagleish but as much as it pains me to admit it, he had had his day towards the end – I have to agree that her tendency towards ‘cleverness’ towards the end did lack the sparkle of her earlier books – I’m pleased to say I have a couple on the TBR that I plan to re-read in 2018!

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I think I stuck with her right to the end of the Dalgleish books, but I really can’t say I enjoyed the last few. I do think authors ought to think about retiring as people in other professions do – several of them have been less than spectacular in their late years. But this has encouraged me to go for a re-read or two too… 😀

  8. I think some of the others commented that they felt the same about PD James – the early works were much more convincing than the later ones. They also seemed to get longer and longer towards the end… However, having seen her talk so passionately about Dalgliesh in Lyon in 2013 and her hopes that she might have one more Dalgliesh novel in her before she died, I can understand her attachment to him: the ideal man and gentleman.

    • Oh, yes – the length! But books in general were getting so much longer by that point – perhaps she felt she had to. I know – I loved Dalgleish in the early days but he felt less credible as time went by. And I did stick with James to the end but the last few books it was more out of loyalty than anything else. However, she gave me a lot of pleasure over a good couple of decades, so I still count myself as a fan!

  9. I have not read P. D. James. I have the Six murderous tales (I think that’s the name and it has a similar cover to your book) and I am so excited to read it. I am not sure if I would be able to pick it up this Dec (that would be just perfect) but I hope I will be able to read it soon.

    • She really is an excellent writer and she seems to be just as good at short stories as in her novels. I’d really like to get the Six Murderous Tales one – sounds great! Nothing like a bit of murder for the festive season, eh? 😉 Enjoy! 😀

  10. I have really enjoyed the PDJames that i have read. The lighthouse one springs to mind. I find a lot of books improve with age: the age of the reader, not the writer, and we draw different things from books at different times in our lives, things we hadnt noticed when younger. So i think the foregoing discussion is a little harsh. I certainly do not agree with the sentiment that she should have stopped writing at her prime–how is one ever to know that one Is there, as a writer? I like your line at the beginning of the review, which makes the assessment of the writer’s “declining” abilities beside the point: “As one would expect, the quality is variable, but only within the range of good to excellent.”😊

    • I agree that we find different things in books as we age, which is why re-reading is such a joy. I know what you mean, and some writers certainly produce great stuff well into their later years, but I reckon it’s probably up to publishers to tell authors when they’ve maybe passed their peak. PD stayed good, though not as good as she once was, but some writers have really produced poor books at the end of their career and I do feel it’s a pity. I’m always concerned that a new generation of readers might pick one of the late books as their first and write the author off as not very good.

    • I must say that even the less good ones are still good, and the more good ones are excellent (I’ve confused myself now!) In short, an enjoyable read despite the variability!

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