Four perfectly drawn short mysteries
FICTION her own fiction.
In “The Mistletoe Murder,” her first and presumably only story collection (James died two years ago, at the age of 94), a nod goes to the woman often called the best-selling mystery writer of all time.
“I expect you are thinking that this is typical Agatha Christie,” writes the title story’s narrator, herself “a best-selling crime novelist.” “And you are right; that’s exactly how it struck me at the time. But one forgets … how similar my mother’s England was to Dame Agatha’s Mayhem Parva. And it seems entirely appropriate that the body should have been discovered in the library, that most fatal room in popular British fiction.”
“Parva,” by the way, is Latin for “small.” And Mayhem Parva is not a real town but a dig at the genteel milieu in which Christie’s principal detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, solved their cases.
The four tales in this slim volume, then, are oldfashioned, at least up to a point: no noir, yet plenty of shadows; no explicit sex, but ample erotic tension. And James spins them with the economy demanded by the short form.
Two of the stories feature that James stalwart Adam Dalgliesh, summed up by a suspect in the novel “Devices and Desires” (1989) as “Scotland Yard’s most intelligent detective.” “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” is set at a time when the future chief superintendent is a mere sergeant, and it is Dalgliesh himself who places the story in a crime-lit context. As a pedestrian leaps onto a remote road to flag down Dalgliesh’s car one winter afternoon, Dalgliesh’s “first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers of an upmarket weekly magazine.” As we’ve already been tipped off by the story’s title, that’s not a bad description of the tale we are actually reading.
Many writers of detective fiction deepen their novels by giving their detective a personal flaw to wrestle with as he or she tries to solve crimes. Dalgliesh’s main flaw is atypical — not a weakness (alcohol or drug abuse, say) or an impairment (blindness, amnesia, Asperger’s syndrome, etc.) but a strength. Dalgliesh tends to assert his consummate professionalism without making allowances for his colleagues’ feelings. In “Devices,” a country cop still holds a grudge over a too-frank criticism leveled at him by Dalgliesh during a case they collaborated on 12 years earlier.