A Holiday for Murder – Agatha Christie (1938)

There’s something about reading a seasonal mystery during the actual season, and I do such a poor job of this.  Every winter I find myself binging on a wide spread of stories (due to extra spare time), but rarely an actual winter mystery.  And then, inevitably come some time around April, I find myself hitting a snowbound story and wondering why I didn’t read it back when my house was surrounded by two feet of white.  And so this year, I decided that I’ll actually pack my winter with winter-appropriate reads… although I’ll tell you now that I’m probably going to fail at that resolution.  It’s just that I have all of these other recent acquisitions that I’m dying to get to, and I don’t know that I’ll make time for Mystery in White, Portrait of a Murderer, or Envious Casca… this year.  And inevitably, come the spring, I’ll find myself regretting…

It’s been half a year since I read a Christie, and she just seemed like the natural fit for my mission for a solid holiday read.  The problem though is that A Holiday for Murder (more famously published as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Murder for Christmas) has zero feeling of the holidays.  Other than the premise of the characters gathering together for the holidays (and the question of whether to feed the servants beef instead of chicken), there’s really nothing wintery about the story, much less Christmasy.  It might as well have taken place in July.

So I whiffed on my holiday read, but I still got a good enough Christie.  You’ve your bread and butter country house mystery involving a diamond magnate who winds up with a cut throat hours after announcing his plan to alter his will.  The murder stands out for the brutality of it, with the crime scene drenched in blood.  Christie also gives us a rare locked room mystery, although the police solve that part within half a page of the premise being introduced.

While not a full-fledged locked room mystery, A Holiday of Murder is diabolically clever in terms of how the crime was committed.  A lazy comparison would be that this is something out of a John Dickson Carr novel, but really both authors approached their plotting and misdirection in different ways.  

As for the who, I figured it out midway through the book.  I can’t even really explain it looking back, but there was a scene where I was hit by a sudden horrifying sense of clarity.  I don’t know why I have this luck with Christie instead of other authors, but hopefully you get to experience the surprise on this one.

A Holiday for Murder reads like a somewhat typical Christie.  You get an interesting story that moves at a good pace, distinct enough characters, and it’s a total GAD comfort read.  If there’s a weakness in these it’s that Christie sets things up such that although there are plenty of potential solutions, none of them feel like they’re going to be particularly satisfying.  Of course, at the end, Christie whips out some incredibly clever trick that you never saw coming (see also Murder at Hazelmoor, Evil Under the Sun, Sad Cypress).  In that sense, you’re lulled into thinking you’re merely going to get a “he/she’s the killer”, nod your head through whatever explanation, and that’s it.  I suppose it makes the shock of the twist more pronounced, but I sometimes miss that breathless urge to know the solution.

A Holiday for Murder is of this cloth.  Come the end you’ll have a convincing theory for how any of the characters could have been the killer, including those characters that seemingly couldn’t possibly have been involved.  Any of those outcomes feels like a sure thing, but then Christie zings you with an out of left field solution.  The sting is that you realize that all of your previous theories merely accounted for the fact that someone had a window of opportunity, but didn’t really provide an explanation for how all of it came together.  It feels a bit silly in hindsight, as Christie isn’t just going to leave you with some bland  “he snuck into the room and killed him” revelation.

The film

The David Suchet adaptation is… not my favorite.  Oh, it has the great settings and acting that you’d expect, but once again the producers can’t leave well enough alone.  I swear we’re ten minutes into this before any semblance of a scene from the actual book occurs.  Characters get condensed – that I can understand given budgets – but then inexplicably other characters are invented. I just wonder what was so bad about the original telling of the story that these changes are regarded as some improvement.

Oh, and that scene where Christie oh so cleverly shows key elements leading up to the crime playing out?  The film isn’t just ham-handed with this, it’s whole-damn-pig-handed.  I can’t imagine any first time viewer not remarking “that seems suspicious” about that scene.

So no, not the best Suchet adaptation, but I still drank it all in.

My edition

I ended up with a 1952 Avon paperback as part of a legend-worthy bulk purchase of vintage Christie editions.  The cover is excellent and set the tone for my reading.  Beyond that it’s fine – sturdier paper stock than I prefer, but the promise of being complete and unabridged.  The cast of characters is nice and to the point without revealing too much – you can actually read all of the supplementary material in this one before the story without risk of spoilers – which is sadly unusual.

11 thoughts on “A Holiday for Murder – Agatha Christie (1938)”

  1. I too was disappointed that Christie didn’t make more of the Christmas setting, though it does provide a convincing reason for a dysfunctional family to assemble. But yes, I did get to experience the surprise (in other words, I fell into Christie’s trap… again). Like Funerals Are Fatal, this felt like a solid but routine mystery until the solution, which isn’t as brilliant as Funerals Are Fatal, but satisfying. I thought I knew who and why early on, though I couldn’t figure out the two physical clues. Sure enough, eight pages from the end, my suspect was exposed… and cleared two pages later. The two physical clues were obvious once explained, and, as so often with Christie, everything was obvious in retrospect.

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  2. If I remember correctly, there’s really only one Christie story that is a real Christmas mystery, and that is the short story “Christmas Adventure” and it’s longer novella expansion “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”. The mystery in it isn’t great, but there’s a lot of Christmas feeling in it (particularly in the longer novella)!

    And of course the winter setting is essential to “Murder on the Orient Express”, but that goes without saying.

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      1. There’s “A Sittaford Mystery/Murder at Hazelmoor”, but of course you’ve read that one.

        In the Miss Marple collection “The Thirteen Problems”, there’s also “A Christmas Adventure”, which has even less Christmas ambiance than “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”.

        Finally, there’s the short story “Three Blind Mice”, which DOES do a lot with its winter setting.

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      2. 4.50 from Paddington takes place partly during Christmas time. Characters go for Christmas shopping, a family comes together for Christmas (again) and some kids have Christmas holidays from school. But it doesn’t go much deeper than that and potentially could have taken place during any other time as well. The one where Christie made most out of the setting in winter is definitely Sittaford Mystery.

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  3. I have read two Christmastime mysteries this December, and I’m not entirely sure it improved either of them — the Christmas elements are cursory at best. Something about seasons can really impact my reading of a book (cold books in the Winter, etc), but holidays…,meh,

    This one I remember vaguely. It was an early Christie for me, and the culprit and method came as a surprise because I was very new to this sort of thing. Though I do remember the whole things requiring the use of one element that surely stopped being familiar to your average reader about 5 years after this was published, which was a shame.

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    1. It’s really about the season/weather, isn’t it? For me, I could boil it down to fall, winter, and torrential rain. You can read a summer book any time, and there isn’t much of a spring book thing is there? But come fall and winter, the combination of the weather, the mindset, and a good story adds to the read.

      Rain is another thing. I live in a place where it doesn’t rain that often, and when it does, it’s only for an hour or so. I’d love nothing more than to read a book like Murder on the Way or Whistle Up the Devil during a decent storm.

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