“The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories” by P. D. James

The Mistletoe Murder

 

Listening to this collection of four Christmas crime short stories is a splendid way to pass cold, wet December evenings.

The first two stories, both read by Jenny Agutter, are strong, memorable standalone pieces. The second two stories, read by Daniel Weyman are light vignettes showing Adam Dalgliesh at work.

The collection opens with the title story, “The Mistletoe Murder”, which tells the story of a   murder at a country house at Christmas during World War Two. This is not a cosy mystery with a smart detective solving clever puzzles about who committed a largely bloodless crime. It is something entirely darker and more realistic.

The prose is as sharp-edged and precise as a scalpel. The young widow from whose point of view the story is told is perceptive and strong-minded. The murder is violent and bloody. The emotions are intensified by being muted in their expression. The plot is grimly satisfying, nodding to tradition before tossing it aside for something that is more muscular and aggressive, in a very English way. I particularly liked the way the war changed the tone of the story, making the violence both more likely and more acceptable. Jenny Agutter was the perfect choice to bring this story to life.

“A Very Commonplace Murder” is another dark and surprising piece. The story is told by an unpleasant man who has reason to know that the man being tried for murder is innocent but who constantly finds reasons not to come forward. The tone of the story is as vulgar, censorious and smug as the man telling it but beneath it lies a clever and surprising plot and an unsympathetic view of the effectiveness of the English judicial process.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas” is a light, puzzle piece, featuring a young Adam Dalgliesh, only recently promoted to Sergeant, becomes, by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, becomes involved in investigating the unexpected death of a wealthy old man in his country house at Christmas. The tone is playful and is effectively a pastiche of an Agatha Christie story, with the young Dalgliesh display how perceptive he is and how well his little grey cells work. It was something of an éclair, sweet but with no substance.

“The Boxdale Inheritance” is the weakest story. It involves Dalgliesh in investigating, with great discretion, an old murder case, where the accused woman was never convicted. There is some cleverness here but I found myself not taking to Dalgliesh much. He’s too Establishment and too dull for me but then, this is really a fragment and perhaps not a good basis for assessing Dalgliesh.

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Jenny Agutter reading “The Mistletoe Murder”.

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