Revisit the Mysterious World of P.D. James in ‘The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories’ [REVIEW]


In P.D. James’s The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, four of the author’s classic stories are brought together to baffle readers all over again. (Photo by Nils Rohwer, Flickr)

I’ve been a fan of British crime fiction for decades, but one of my favorite authors was the Queen of Crime herself, P.D. James. Over the course of her career, magazines and newspapers commissioned her to write special short stories for the holidays. Growing up on the American side of the pond, I never got the chance to read any of these stories when they were originally released, so you can imagine my delight when Knopf decided to publish four of them together in book format. The result is the charming gift-sized volume, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories.



In the title story, a bestselling crime novelist remembers the event that launched her career 50 years before. Visiting her grandmother for Christmas, the author (not James, but a fictitious scribe) is involved in a locked room mystery that she simply can’t let go.

A “respectable” clerk with a penchant for salacious reading material becomes a secret voyeur in “A Very Commonplace Murder.” As an unwitting witness to murder, he suddenly finds himself weighing a man’s life in the balance. How he decides to handle the the situation will change his life forever.

James’s iconic poet-detective, Adam Dalgliesh, has long been a fan favorite, and he makes an appearance in the last two stories in this volume. First, in “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Adam’s godfather wants to know how his recently deceased Great Aunt Allie came by her fortune before he accepts his inheritance.

Finally, in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” all Adam wants is a quiet night with his aunt in front of the fire. Instead, he finds himself spending the holiday with a very peculiar family, trying to figure out the truth behind a very untimely death.

As a writer, I know the challenges of writing short fiction. One must breathe life into characters quickly and conjure up a sense of place with the finesse of a magician’s slight of hand. But James does both things easily, and with barely more than a few paragraphs we are thrust into succinct stories which intrigue and fascinate us as readers.

My favorite thing about each of these little mysteries, however, is how brilliantly James employs the classic twist. Just when we think we know how the story will end up, she flips our perception on its head, leaving her readers in awe of her mastery as a storyteller.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of James’s work or simply love a good mystery, you won’t want to miss this book. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is crime fiction as it should be: dark, delicious, and ultimately surprising.

P.D. James

P.D. James at her typewriter in 1980.
(Photo by Graham Harrison/Rex/Shutterstock)


P.D. James was the author of The Children of MenDeath Comes to PemberleyDevices and Desires, and 17 other books, many of which feature her detective hero Adam Dalgliesh and were adapted for both television and film.

Throughout her career, James wrote numerous essays and short stories for periodicals and anthologies. The Mistletoe Murder features four of these stories.

She received many prizes and honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. In 1991 she was created Baroness James of Holland Park.

James died in her Oxford home on Nov. 27, 2014 at the age of 94.

By P.D. James
176 pgs. Knopf. $24.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

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