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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 141…

Episode 141…

A massive drop in the TBR this week! Down 2 to 217! Well on the way to single figures, see? I may have to stock up on a few more books before I run out…

This might be the last TBR post before Christmas, since the annual FictionFan Awards will be kicking off soon, so here are a few that I’m determined to fit in before year end… somehow or other!

Dickens for Christmas

I’ve had a tradition for many years of reading Dickens over Christmas, which is why I included five of his novels on my Classics Club list. This will be a re-read of one that I love for all the weird and wonderful characters…

The Blurb says: When Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless after his father’s death, he appeals to his wealthy uncle to help him find work and to protect his mother and sister. But Ralph Nickleby proves both hard-hearted and unscrupulous, and Nicholas finds himself forced to make his own way in the world. His adventures gave Dickens the opportunity to portray an extraordinary gallery of rogues and eccentrics: Wackford Squeers, the tyrannical headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, a school for unwanted boys; the slow-witted orphan Smike, rescued by Nicholas; and the gloriously theatrical Mr and Mrs Crummles and their daughter, the ‘infant phenomenon’. Like many of Dickens’s novels, Nicholas Nickleby is characterised by his outrage at cruelty and social injustice, but it is also a flamboyantly exuberant work, revealing his comic genius at its most unerring.

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Crime

I have a lot of very talented blog buddies, which is great for me but a killer for my TBR! Angela Savage is one of them and I’ve been intending to read this, her debut novel from before I ‘met’ her, for ages. She’s written another two in the series and is currently working on a non-series novel, so I better get a move on!

The Blurb says: Thirty-something Australian Jayne Keeney works as a PI in Bangkok. Shaken by a serious incident, she heads north to visit her close friend Didier in Chiang Mai, though there’s no relief for her there.

Murder is in the air and the police, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ratratarn, have no interest in justice. But Jayne does. With some help from Arthur Conan Doyle, she digs deep – past the tacky glamour of the city’s clubs and bars, arrogant expats, corrupt officials, and a steamy affair – to find out just what happened behind the Night Bazaar.

Angela Savage has brought the streets of Thailand vividly to life. In Jayne Keeney she has created a gutsy heroine. This is an unforgettable debut novel and the start of an exciting new series.

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Factual

Courtesy of NetGalley. When The Graduate came out in 1967, I was too young to see it, but I did watch it several times in the following decades. It didn’t have quite the impact on me that this book claims it had on those who saw it when it came out, but nonetheless there are some scenes that are etched indelibly in my memory. And of course, there’s the music…

The Blurb says: When The Graduate premiered in December 1967, its filmmakers had only modest expectations attached to what seemed to be a small, sexy, art house comedy adapted from an obscure first novel by an eccentric twenty-four-year-old. There was little indication that this offbeat story–a young man just out of college has an affair with one of his parents’ friends–would turn out to be a monster hit, with an extended run in theaters and seven Academy Award nominations.

The film catapulted an unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, to stardom with a role that is now permanently engraved in our collective memories. And just as it turned the word plastics into shorthand for soulless work and a corporate, consumer culture, The Graduate sparked a national conversation about what came to be called “the generation gap.”

Now, in time for this iconic film’s fiftieth birthday, author Beverly Gray offers up a smart close reading of the film itself and vivid, never-before-revealed details from behind the scenes of the production–including all the drama and decision-making of the cast and crew. For movie buffs and pop culture fans, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson brings to light The Graduate’s huge influence on the future of filmmaking, and it explores how this unconventional movie rocked the late sixties world, both reflecting and changing the era’s views of sex, work, and marriage.

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Crime

I have a lot of very talented blog buddies, which is great for me but a killer for my TBR! No, you’re not suffering from déjà vu – this is another one! Caleigh O’Shea is the pen name of my blog buddy Debbie who blogs over at Musings by an ND Domer’s Mom, and this is her newly-released debut novel…

The Blurb says: Texas journalist Josh Griffin lives for scoops, but he’s never faced real danger to get one. Nor has he ever been emotionally drawn into his stories. Then he gets an anonymous tip that teenaged golf superstar Lexi Carlisle has been kidnapped, and Josh embarks on an investigation destined to change his life forever. Lexi Carlisle is the daughter of Josh’s college sweetheart; watching Amanda agonize over her missing daughter while refuting police insinuations that she had something to do with the crime is more than Josh can handle. And when he unravels the web of lies spun by Lexi’s crazed kidnapper — who has killed once and isn’t afraid to do so again — Josh realizes the story takes second place to the girl’s rescue.

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Christmas Crime on Audio

Narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, doesn’t this sound like perfect festive fun?

The Blurb says: A collection of four short stories from P. D. James, published together for the first time.

As the acknowledged “Queen of Crime”, P. D. James was frequently commissioned by newspapers and magazines to write special short stories for Christmas. Four of the very best of these have been rescued from the archives and are published together. P. D. James’ prose illuminates each of these perfectly formed stories, making them ideal listening for the darkest days of the year.

While she delights in the secrets that lurk beneath the surface at enforced family gatherings, her Christmas stories also provide enjoyable puzzles to keep the reader guessing. From the title story about a strained country-house Christmas party to another about an illicit affair that ends in murder and two cases for James’ poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, each treats the reader to James’ masterfully atmospheric storytelling, always with the lure of a mystery to be solved.

The four stories are: The Mistletoe Murder; A Very Commonplace Murder; The Boxdale Inheritance; The Twelve Clues of Christmas.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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