This week I’ve been snuffling my way through a box of tissues thanks to a horrible cold, and my ability to focus has been compromised, so I picked up some short stories which have been staring at me reproachfully from the reading pile, PD James’ posthumous Christmas offering, “The Mistletoe Murder”. The title story is a brief masterclass in plotting, a wartime country house almost deserted, with only a few family members gathered as the snow falls. In her recent longer fiction, I’ve found it takes a very long time for the murder to happen, with the first hundred pages given over to scene setting. I’ve become conditioned to expect a death in the first 20 pages or so, in line with modern conventions, and anything else seems slow. Here, with the abbreviated length, the attention to scene feels justified, and I can allow for the atmosphere of a wintry country house to take on a greater role than the death itself.
The four short stories that make up this collection are varied, with only two having a connection to Christmas. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is depressing enough to be stamped “Not Safe For Christmas”. The final story, “The Twelve Clues of Christmas”, perhaps stretches some of its clues to make a point, which is that the story is “pure Agatha Christie”, an affectionate homage to James’s predecessor, and an early adventure for Adam Dalgliesh.
Baroness James uses language so skilfully in capturing the past that the stories glide like swans on a winter lake. The world of these tales, in the 1940s to 1960s, seems a long way away now, and not far removed from Christie herself. The foreword from Val McDermid sets James in context. Beautifully produced. I hope there’ll be another one of these next Christmas.