Enduring appeal of the festive mystery

Why Christmas is a good time for a crime story

This collection brings together some top crime writers
This collection brings together
some top crime writers
The dark days leading up to the festive season, when people face the prospect of meeting up with distant relatives and staying in cold and uncomfortable houses, has inspired many a good Christmas crime story.

There is always the prospect of the house being cut off because of severe weather and of ancient grudges resurfacing as the wine flows.

Most of the Golden Age detective novelists have had a crack at a Christmas crime story either in the form of a full-length novel or a short story.

Many of these have recently been reprinted  and given new front covers and are now entertaining a brand-new audience.

Some have been made into films that provide perfect entertainment for people replete with Christmas dinner as they snuggle down in front of the fire and watch other  people’s Christmas parties ending with a murder.

The four Queens of Crime all turned out their fair share of Christmas murder mysteries, many of them going on to become popular films.

Their short Christmas stories were originally written for magazines, but we are now able to enjoy them again as they come out in anthologies.

I can recommend a short story by Margery Allingham, The Case Is Altered, which has been included in Murder Under the Christmas Tree – Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season.

Margery Allingham's short story is well worth reading
Margery Allingham's short story
is well worth reading
Mr Albert Campion is going to spend Christmas at Sir Phillip Cookham’s country home in Norfolk. Cookham is a kindly, mild-mannered Cabinet minister, but his wife Florence, a distant relative of Campion’s, loves to host big Christmas parties, with all the festive trimmings, several Christmas trees and an odd assortment of guests.

Campion finds himself sharing a railway carriage with some of his fellow guests and even before the train reaches its destination, a station near a country house called Underhill, he is aware of tensions between some of the people who have been invited.

A note pushed under the door of the neighbouring guest room adds to his feeling of unease and even though the recipient thinks he is being invited to a romantic tryst, Campion has the feeling something more sinister is going on.

In less than 25 pages, Margery provides us with an intriguing mystery, that is full of Christmas atmosphere and shows her detective, Campion, at his best as he solves the case in his usual self -effacing way.

Murder Under the Christmas Tree, published by Profile Books, also has stories by Dorothy L Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edmund Crispin and G K Chesterton.

It is available from or



The Nursing Home Murder

Alleyn investigates the killing of a Home Secretary

New Zealand-born crime writer Ngaio Marsh displays an impressive wealth of knowledge about English life and the inside workings of the British Government in The Nursing Home Murder, her third novel to feature the gentlemanly Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

The book begins with a Cabinet meeting at No 10 Downing Street, where the Home Secretary and other ministers are discussing a controversial Bill they are planning to introduce to deal with anarchists. The Home Secretary begins to feel ill during the meeting, alarming the other members of the Cabinet, and decides to go home early.

After being examined by a doctor, it is decided the Home Secretary will go into a nursing home, which was the equivalent of a private hospital at the time, for an operation on his appendix. The operation is a success, yet the patient soon dies. His widow later becomes suspicious and calls the police and eventually the investigation is assigned to Roderick Alleyn.

The Nursing Home Murder was published in 1935, just seven years after Ngaio had first visited England. It was her third detective novel and it appeared only a year after the publication of her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, and second novel, Enter a Murderer.

Alleyn eventually discovers that among the staff in the operating theatre at the time of the operation there were at least three people who might have wanted the Home Secretary dead. This might seem rather far-fetched, but Ngaio explains the circumstances convincingly.

Alleyn is assisted in his investigation by his colleague, Inspector Fox, and his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate.

Patrick Malahide, who portrayed  Inspector Alleyn in a TV series
Patrick Malahide, who portrayed 
Inspector Alleyn in a TV series
Ngaio was well known for doing thorough research for her novels and her descriptions of London in the 1930s are very interesting and evocative.

Her 32 novels featuring Roderick Alleyn later became so popular she was often referred to as a Queen of Crime along with her contemporaries, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham.

In the preface to my copy of an omnibus edition of her first three novels - A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - Ngaio describes how she first came up with the character of Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

It was a wet Saturday afternoon and she had been reading a detective story borrowed from a library, although she says she can’t remember whether it was a Christie or a Sayers. By four o’clock, as the afternoon became darker and the rain was still coming down relentlessly, she had finished it.

She wondered whether she could write something similar and braved the rain to go to a stationer’s shop across the street where she bought six exercise books, a pencil and a pencil sharpener. When she got home, she sat down to write what was to be the first of a series of crime novels featuring the gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn.

After The Nursing Home Murder was published in 1935, the reviewer for The Times claimed the novel had transformed the detective story from just a puzzle to a full blown and fascinating novel.

One of Ngaio’s fellow Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie, paid her the compliment of having one of her characters in Murder in Mesopotamia being seen reading The Nursing Home Murder.

I found The Nursing Home Murder very readable and enjoyed the way Ngaio keeps the reader guessing about who murdered the Home Secretary right to the end.

Book One of the Ngaio Marsh Collection, published by Harper, comprises her first three novels including The Nursing Home Murder and is available from: