Monday, November 21, 2016

P. D. James: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

P. D. James
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
Intro by Val McDermid
Preface by P. D. James

P. D. James is my favorite mystery writer.   The only works of hers that I haven't read are a true-crime work in collaboration with T. A. Critchley and her autobiography.   Consequently I was overjoyed to discover that there was now a collection of several of her short stories in print.  I hadn't even been aware that she had written any shorter works, so I immediately searched the public library for a copy.  I'm now thinking about getting my own

The first two stories are flashback tales, the third is a cold case mystery, and the fourth is a contemporary crime.  The third and fourth are a joy to read because I thought that there would be no more Adam Dalgliesh stories. 

"The Mistletoe Murder"

The anonymous 1st person narrator is a "bestselling crime novelist" who explains her part in a murder that happen many years ago.  The others are dead now, so it's safe to finally tell what happened.

It happened during WWII.  Her husband was an RAF  pilot who was killed two weeks after they were married.   That Christmas she received an invitation from her grandmother to spend the holidays with her.  There would be only one person there besides them, a first cousin, Paul, whom she had never met because of a family feud.

When she arrived, she found that her grandmother had misled her:  there was another person there.  He was Rowland Maybrick, a distant family relation and an antique dealer who specialized in old coins.  Her grandmother had invited him to evaluate a coin collection and possibly locate buyers.  The narrator found him obnoxious.

On the evening of  Christmas Day, Maybrick decides to evaluate the coins, for he has to leave the following morning.  The next day, Maybrick does not appear for breakfast, and he hasn't slept in his bed.  A search begins, and his body is found in the library (where else in a stately isolated mansion?), his head bashed in.  The local constabulary is called in, and he decides he must have been killed by an intruder.

So the matter rests until the narrator, the young woman who will become a "bestselling crime novelist" begins her own investigation.

"A Very Commonplace Murder"

Many years ago, a married woman was found stabbed to death in an apartment.  She had left a note for her friend, who had given her the key,  in which she explains that she was going to end the affair for her husband was getting suspicious.   Various witnesses placed him in the vicinity of the apartment on the evening she was murdered.  In spite of the circumstantial evidence against him, the young lover insisted he was innocent.  He had been there, but she never let him in.   It's all very ordinary, commonplace as the title suggests.  However, it is not quite so commonplace as believed..

She gave the old man the key to the apartment, but she'd been in real estate long enough to know he wasn't a serious inquirer.  Why he wanted to look around, she didn't know, but it wasn't any of her business.  She was  right, though; Ernest Gabriel did have his reasons. 

Gabriel had evidence in support of the young lover's story.  There was, however, a slight problem.  First, he would have to explain what he was doing in a place that he had no right to be in at that time.   Secondly, he would have had to explain why he was there, and that would have been even more embarrassing.   To sum up his problem: if he told the police what he know, he would most likely lose his job and be blacklisted by his former employer.  In addition, he would become an object of ridicule, such that the few people who knew him would laugh and sneer at him.  On the one hand, his job and reputation would be at risk; on the other hand, an innocent man's life was at risk.

The young lover is arrested, and Gabriel decides to wait, for the police may find more evidence and free the young man.  Then, Gabriel's sacrifice would have been in vain.  Best to wait until the lover is actually charged.  Then he would speak.  The young man is charged with the crime . . .

This is less of a mystery and more of a psychological study of a man caught in a trap of his own devising.  It wouldn't have occurred if he hadn't been where he shouldn't have been and doing what he knew he shouldn't be doing.

"The Boxdale Inheritance"

This, in a sense,  is a cold case mystery, one of my favorite types.  It's a bit unusual for, as best as I can remember, it's the only cold case that the Met's  Adam Dalgliesh has been involved in.  In addition, it's not a formal investigation, for Dalgliesh is doing this on his own time for his godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale.

Great Aunt Allie had just left Canon Boxdale the tidy sum of fifty thousand pounds. His wife has serious medical problems, and the unexpected inheritance seems almost miraculous.  This, however, posed a problem for the Canon, and he wished Inspector Dalgliesh would look into it.   Ir was a matter of conscience.  Some sixty-seven years ago Great Aunt Allie, as a very young woman, married a rich older man.  The man's family was upset, for she was a few months younger than the old man's granddaughter, and he had made a new will that left her everything. You may decide for yourself which was the most distressing.

Several months later he died, and an autopsy revealed that he had been poisoned.  Great Aunt Allie was charged, tried, and found Not Guilty.  Now, some sixty-seven years later she dies and leaves Canon Boxdale fifty thousand pounds.  The Canon is worried that the money may be tainted in that she murdered her husband to get it.  He asks Dalgliesh to investigate and decide whether he can honestly and without any doubt accept the verdict of Not Guilty.

Chief Inspector Dalgliesh investigates with his usual thoroughness and does come to a conclusion, but not without undergoing a matter of conscience of his own.

"The Twelve Clues of Christmas"

The title, of course, is a play on the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  And, there are twelve clues.  Unfortunately I didn't take the title seriously, so I wasn't really counting the clues as they appeared.  I did pick up a few though.

Sgt. Adam Dalgliesh is on his way to spend Christmas with his Aunt Jane, when occurs that cliched opening to an adventure.  He is driving down a lonely road, not far from his Aunt Jane's place, when a man "leaps from the side of the road in the darkness of a winter afternoon, frantically waving down the approaching motorist . . ."

Dalgliesh stops and Helmut Harkerville excitedly asks Dalgliesh to take him to a telephone.  He must call the police for his uncle has just committed suicide.  That task accomplished, Dalgliesh then takes him back to Harkerville Hall.  (These isolated mansions in the countryside keep popping up everywhere).   Dalgliesh unofficially looks around and then turns it over to the local constabulary.

Unfortunately, he's still involved.  He has just begun to relax at Aunt Jane's when Inspector Peck arrives.  Peck has called the Met and discovered that Dalgliesh is a bit of a fair-haired boy there and requests his help.  Dalgliesh sighs;  there goes that quiet evening in conversation with Aunt Jane in front of a fireplace with a drink in hand. (In an interview, James had said that her favorite author was Jane Austen.  The aunt's name is a coincidence, I'm sure),

He returns with Inspector Peck, and they conduct a thorough search of the place.  Afterwords, Inspector Peck asks, "So what stuck you particularly about this little charade?"

Sgt. Dalgliesh responds, "A number of oddities, Sir.  If this were a detective story, you could call it 'The Twelve Clues of Christmas.'"

(James is having some fun with us--doing a little post-modern stuff here.)

Dalgliesh continues:  "'It's taken a little mental agility to get the number to twelve, but I thought it appropriate.'

"'Cut out the cleverness, laddie, and get to the facts.'"

And, so Sgt.  Dalgliesh gets to the facts, the twelve clues.

As for the type of a story this is, Sgt Dalgliesh says it best in the last words of the tale: "My dear Aunt Jane, I don't think I'll ever have another case like it.  It was pure Agatha Christie."

These are four enjoyable tales, and they are pure P. D. James.  The only problem is that there are only four.  Now that I know that P. D., James has written some short stories, I will conduct a little investigation of my own: are there more?


  1. a true mystery it is with James and i: i read reviews of her work and it sounds great; but then i start one of her books and i can't stand it... there's just something about her writing that turns me off; maybe someday i'll be able to figure it out and change my bad attitude, but i'd better hurry... tx for the informative and entertaining post...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I know what you mean. There are writers with large audience appeal and critical approval, but there's something about the writer's style that just doesn't click with me.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. These stories sound like a lot of fun. They also sound like superior alternative to more contemporary Christmas themed mysteries.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      I found them enjoyable.

      I can't comment on Christmas themed mysteries as I avoid them, especially if they are written for the seasonal publications or issues, rather than being set at Christmas because that was the author's idea.

      I hope I made myself clear here.

  3. Thanks, Fred! I had no idea James had short stories out there. I've enjoyed a few of her novels. I also fondly recall the British TV programs featuring Dalgliesh. Now I hope the library has a copy of the stories. Again, thanks for the timely posting.

    1. R.T.,

      I had no idea either until I got the notice from the local library announcing that the book was on order. I immediately put a hold on it. I have to turn it back in a few days as there are around 40 people on the reserve list for the ten copies.

      The book was published this year.

  4. The oddest thing, Fred. I was never P.D. James' biggest fan. But then I listened to several of her books on audio and changed my mind. I had watched some of the PBS Mystery versions too, years ago. I couldn't tell you exactly why the audio versions changed my view, except that they did. (But having said that I must add that I absolutely LOATHED her DEATH AT PEMBERLEY.)

    However, I will be looking for this short story collection, Fred. Thanks for the tip. I'll line up at the library. :)

    1. Yvette,

      I know many people didn't like Death Comes to Pemberley. I guess I'm one of the few who did. I thought she captured the spirit of the times quite well and portrayed the characters quite accurately within their social spheres.

      I did do a blog post on the novel several years ago in which I go into this a little more.

      Lots of luck at the library.

  5. P.S. I'm number 31 in line. :)