Christmas Crime Classics

Welcome to our new Gaslight Crime blog.

As the name suggests, we’ll be focusing partly on crime and thrillers written or set loosely from the Victorian period to the inter-war years of the twentieth century. As John is a great trespasser, we’ll be straying into modern crime fiction that owes some influence to this era. From Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels, to John Buchan’s ‘shockers’ and the Queens of the Golden Age, we love ‘em all. There will also be posts about crime writing research, guest blogs and (not too many) mentions of our own work.

As the festive season approaches we enjoy revisiting classic detective fiction with a Christmas setting. The kind of novels and short stories that transport you to a world of steam trains, snow scenes, log fires and murderous house parties in the English countryside.

One of the best known is Dame Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. It’s interesting to reflect that it was published in 1939 and so depicted a just vanished world. It contains the classic ingredients of a Golden Age detective novel – a country house party, an enclosed list of suspects with something to hide and even a locked room mystery. It features the return of a prodigal, a device used several times by Christie and the solution is a clever example of her gift for misdirection.

Christie is often criticised these days for lack of depth in her characters. This seems to me to be unfair. She had the ability to convey a character in a vivid thumbnail sketch, combined with a masterly understanding of human nature. Fat crime novels of 400 pages or more are currently fashionable (though this is often helped by a large font and wide spacing). Agatha Christie is a superb example of less is more.

Redemption by the late Jill McGown is a highly recommended Christmas crime novel. (Published in the USA as Murder At The Old Vicarage). She described it as “an homage to Agatha with her kind of setting and a modern, decidedly uncosy twist.” Although the setting was contemporary when it was published in 1988, it already feels nostalgic to escape back to a time where detectives weren’t waving mobile phones and their notebooks were paper.

The story is set around the dark events of Christmas Eve in a snow-bound village which has a castle. The village was inspired by Rockingham in Northamptonshire, a setting Jill McGown knew well. Her complex plots were always wonderfully satisfying puzzles, written with great psychological insight. She wrote 13 novels featuring her engaging detectives Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill as well as 4 standalones. Jill was taught Latin at school by the legendary Colin Dexter, creator of Chief Inspector Morse and her work has a similar feel. Her work deserves to be much more widely known.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Christmas Crime Classics

  1. I was so excited to see you talk about Jill McGown! I have all the Lloyd-Hill novels on my bookshelf and had the pleasure of interviewing her for Mystery Review magazine many years ago. A lost talent. Thank you for bringing her to readers’ attention.

    And Dame Agatha is oft maligned today as modern crime novels focus so heavily on the psychology of characters that we forget how we “got” her characters so well at the time. Tastes change–but there’s a reason she’s only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare!

  2. Hi Marni – Thanks for a really interesting comment. We’re great fans of Jill McGown’s novels and by all accounts she was a lovely lady. I like the way her plots are wonderfully devious. When you read a lot of crime novels, it gets harder to be baffled and you appreciate the writers who can pull the wool over your eyes. Her untimely death was a great loss.
    One of the things I enjoy about Dame Agatha is her depiction of long-gone English village life with all its layers – especially in the pre-war novels.

    • I had the great fortune summer before last to be traveling around the south of England doing setting research for the Nora Tierney Mysteries and stayed in Torquay for a few days. There was a restored vintage bus that took travelers to Christie’s Devon home of Greenway. It is kept decorated with her clothes, furniture, even her piano which you are invited to play. It was like stepping back in time to see how she spent time there, with a deck of cards mid-play left on the drawing room coffee table and tea cups out. Very evocative of that era. Grounds and gardens lovely, too.

  3. When we visited, we went on the foot ferry across the beautiful river Dart from Dittisham, another lovely way of getting there. We loved the house. It feels as though the family had just gone out for a moment – something the National Trust always do so very well.

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