For years, I collected different film & TV versions of A Christmas Carol on DVD and watched them around this time of year, until I got thoroughly sick of Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley and “Humbug!” and the rest of it.
I began to look around for other holiday-themed viewing, and eventually turned to the extensive number of mystery stories I have on the shelves. How many of them are set at Christmas, so I could watch bodies pile up at English country houses and missing jewels turn up in weird places over a holiday weekend? Quite a few.
The Blue Carbuncle
Actually, I have two TV versions of this classic Sherlock Holmes story on DVD–one from the Jeremy Brett series from the 1980s, and the other from a series made in the late 1960s starring Peter Cushing. Several episodes of the latter have been lost, but a handful including The Blue Carbuncle survive.
The story: A famous gemstone is stolen from its owner at a posh London hotel. The man sent in to repair the heating is immediately arrested for the crime in spite of his protests that he’s innocent; he doesn’t have the big, blue gem on him and a reward is offered for its return. Then the gemstone turns up in the crop of a Christmas goose, which was dropped in the street by one Henry Baker along with his hat. Who’s this Henry Baker and what connection does he have with the theft? How did the stolen gemstone get from the hotel to the insides of the goose? Have the police got the wrong man? Holmes investigates by tracing the history of the goose from the place where it was purchased to the yard where it was raised to find the true thieves, and all on a frosty Christmas Eve.
Both versions have their merits, although the production values of the later Brett episode are much better. Is it a matter of videotape vs. film, or something in the way that scenes are lit, that make the BBC series of the 1960s and ’70s look so flat and obviously stagey? The rooms that Holmes and Watson share at 122B Baker St., the market stalls of Covent Garden, and the little back streets around the British Museum are sets in both versions, but the latter look more real. Both versions make a point of adding scenes to show the plight of Mr. Horner in prison, falsely arrested for the theft.
I won’t argue over whether Brett or Cushing makes a better Sherlock Holmes, since I’m fond of both, but I will note that both scripts put some effort into rehabilitating the character of Dr. John Watson to try and make him look like less of a bumbling idiot.
A number of small changes were made in the Cushing version of the story, including the gemstone’s owner trying to engage Holmes personally before the whole business with the goose occurs; Holmes refuses since he doesn’t find the case interesting. But there is one addition involving Watson that I found particularly noteworthy.
In the scene where Holmes examines Henry Baker’s hat and gives it to Watson (Nigel Stock) to see what he makes of it, Watson actually notices the obvious clues: the stains covered up with ink, the holes to attach the elastic fastener, the freshly clipped fragments of grizzled hair anointed with lime creme. He doesn’t make any deductions, but he does see these things for a change.
Then, when Holmes makes his deductions, a truly astonishing thing happens: Watson challenges him. For example, as a doctor he knows very well that a big head doesn’t necessarily denote intellect. (The big hat = intellectual surmise has always bugged me.) And how does Holmes know that Mrs. Henry Baker, whose name appears on a tag tied to the goose’s leg, isn’t Mr. Baker’s mother instead of his wife? Holmes has to produce further evidence and deductive reasoning to defend his conclusions. Nothing like this happens in the original short story, but I was delighted to see that the person writing this teleplay noticed these flaws and not only pointed them out, but covered them.
An interesting casting note: In the Cushing version of the story, the man who finds Mr. Baker’s hat and the goose with the stolen carbuncle in it and brings them to Holmes, is played by British character actor Frank Middlemass. In the Brett version, Frank Middlemass appears again, but this time as Henry Baker, the gentleman who lost his hat and goose.
The Cardboard Box
More Sherlock Holmes. This is a rather grisly story about a spinster-lady who receives a box containing two severed ears, from two individuals, packed in preservative salt. In Doyle’s original short story, this happens in the middle of a blazing August, but when it was adapted for the Jeremy Brett Holmes series, they set it at Christmas, so that Miss Cushing opens the box believing it to be a present.
As it turns out, the ears were meant as a message for the lady’s sister, who understands exactly what they mean. When Holmes enters the case, the primary suspect is a medical student and disgruntled former lodger of the two Miss Cushings, and the ears are taken to be a disgusting prank. It soon emerges, however, that something more sinister has occurred. One of the ears belongs to someone both sisters are close to–another, younger sister, who has gone missing. What’s happened to her? Where is her sailor husband? And who does that second ear belong to?
It’s a deeply tragic story for Christmas. Ciarán Hinds plays the husband who took a pledge to quit drinking but has fallen off the wagon in a spectacularly bad way, and Deborah Findlay is the conniving middle sister who has to live with the horrible outcome of her actions.
Joanna David plays the eldest Miss Cushing, the one who opens the box. Back in 1980, about 10 years before this episode was made, she and Jeremy Brett were Maxim de Winter and his second, nameless wife in what I recall being a very good miniseries version of Rebecca–and when is that going to be available? It seems to have disappeared.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
When the boiler in his London flat conks out and won’t be repaired until after Christmas, Hercule Poirot accepts an invitation to spend the holiday at the country manor house of Mr. Simeon Lee with central heating.
Unfortunately for him, it’s five days stuck with one of those awful families Agatha Christie manages to assemble, where a group of spineless and greedy offspring and other hangers-on put up with the obnoxious behavior of an elderly person because they’re hoping to get some money when he dies. In this case, a ne’er-do-well, long lost son and a niece from Spain have also been asked to the old house for the holidays to join in the Lee family feud.
The nasty old father of this particular bunch tells Poirot that his life is in danger–and he’s perfectly right.
Just after Mr. Lee announces that he’s changing his will, he’s suddenly, brutally, and noisily murdered in a locked room. A small box containing uncut diamonds is also taken from the safe. Was the theft part of the motive for the murder, or merely a decoy to throw suspicion on innocent people? Which of Mr. Lee’s numerous offspring is responsible?
Inspector Japp is happy to cut short his vacation with his wife’s family in Wales and leave behind their cheerful singing of Christmas carols to help investigate Mr. Lee’s murder. He and Poirot exchange presents: Poirot gives the inspector a box of cigars, and Japp gives Poirot an enormous pair of gloves hand-knitted by Mrs. Japp. Not wishing to hurt anyone’s feelings, Poirot says that he will save them for “best” and wear them only when he goes to church.
The Theft of the Royal Ruby
No brutal murders in this story. An obnoxious Egyptian prince is visiting London and lets his date wear a priceless ruby that belongs to his family; the young woman heads for the ladies room, then skips out of the restaurant and catches a cab, taking the ruby with her.
Hercule Poirot was looking forward to spending this Christmas alone in his cozy flat with a demi-kilo of fine Belgian chocolates, but since the theft of the ruby creates an international incident, the British government asks him to recover it. Poirot instead spends his holiday at another country estate.
At least the Laceys are a nicer family than the Lees above, apart from the jewel thieves who are also spending the holidays there.
When the ruby turns up in the Christmas pudding, Poirot–like Holmes with the goose in The Blue Carbuncle–must trace the separate paths of the ruby and the pudding to figure out how the one got into the other.
Archie Goodwin has been taunting Nero Wolfe with the idea that he intends to get married– but it’s just a ploy. He’s only helping out a lady friend to make her interior decorator boss jealous so he’ll propose. She invites Archie to her office Christmas party, where she hopes the proposal will be announced.
But at the party, before he can announce anything, Mr. Botwell drops dead. Someone’s put a big dose of cyanide in the bottle of Pernod which he uses to make a toast in place of the champagne everyone else is drinking. Then the Santa who’s tending bar disappears, shedding his costume in the elevator and leaving the building before the police arrive on the scene.
Could Santa be the killer, or is it one of the co-workers, clients, or other suspects who attended the party? Archie’s friend wasn’t the only one who had her hopes set on marrying the boss. Archie then discovers that Nero Wolfe is already more involved in the matter than he thought.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
A Midsomer Murder. Two families have each come together for the holidays, the Villiers in their decrepit country house, and the Barnabys in their suburban home in Causton.
Both families do all the traditional things that British families do on these occasions. Each each gathers around the table for Christmas dinner featuring an enormous turkey. They attend Christmas Eve service at the same church to hear the choir sing carols. They follow the old custom of ghost stories for Christmas established by Charles Dickens and M.R. James by watching Dead of Night on television. And they pop open Christmas crackers to put on colorful little paper hats and read silly riddles aloud.
Well, the Barnabys read silly riddles. The Villiers find a more ominous message inside their Christmas crackers: “How can you tell a heartless liar with blood on their hands? They’ll each be dead by Boxing day.”
As so often happens in Midsomer county, the Villiers are a family with a dark, tragic secret that overshadows their holiday celebrations. A brother committed suicide nine years ago after he was told that his fiancee was a gold-digger, junkie, and thief. The fiancee also killed herself not long afterward.
The grown-up members of the family are anxious to forget the past and blame the little boy who reads the threatening message for pulling a cruel prank. But he and the other younger generation of Villiers aren’t so ready to forget their uncle’s death; they were only small children at the time, but they remember what happened.
When the older folk start having strange accidents and getting killed off, Inspector Tom Barnaby is called in. Like Japp, he’s happy to leave the company of his in-laws and go out to investigate a murder on Christmas Eve.
Days of Misrule
Another Midsomer Murder, although I don’t like this one as much Ghosts of Christmas Past. Apart from Joyce Barnaby singing carols and a lighted tree or two, this story could be set at any time of year.
While Joyce helps out decorating a stately home that’s been converted into a nursing home for injured veterans, her husband Tom and the rest of the Midsomer police are off in the woods playing soldier in some sort of team-building, partnership exercise. When a nearby warehouse blows up, then a corpse in a toolbox is discovered in the pond, Tom welcomes the excuse to get away from the games, which he thinks are nonsense, and back to real police work.
There’s a character in this story so awful that even his own grandmother (Judy Parfitt) despises him, and his ever-patient father (Tim Piggott-Smith) is running out of excuses for his behavior. I kept expecting this jerk, if he wasn’t the murderer himself, to get killed early on, since so many people had good reasons to hate him–but he doesn’t until very near the end, after he’s ruined a lot of lives and certainly spoiled the holiday for more than one person.
As Barnaby’s sergeant Ben Jones will sum things up: “Well, that’s my Christmas Eve stuffed the wrong way up the chimney!”
In the Bleak Midwinter
It’s Christmastime 1942 on Foyle’s War. Christopher Foyle is leading police raids on restaurants that supply black market foods for holiday festivities, which is how the Hastings Constabulary winds up holding a dead, plucked, but uncooked 15-pound turkey as evidence.
DCI Foyle’s driver Samantha Stewart tries to convince him that the turkey should be cooked and eaten, preferably by them, before it spoils. With strict wartime rationing, most of the police haven’t seen meat that didn’t come out of a tin in years. Eventually, the turkey does go to a local refugee organization and Sam is invited to join them–but since the thing has been sitting on a shelf in an unrefrigerated room for several days, I’m not sure if this is really a happy ending for either Sam or the poor, hungry refugees.
The turkey is but a subplot. The main story of this episode involves Sergeant Milner being falsely accused of the murder of his estranged wife. There’s also a woman who accidentally blows herself up at a munitions factory and her skeevy boyfriend who thinks he’s Jimmy Cagney playing out the “Top of the World, Ma!” ending from White Heat, but none of this is very Christmassy.
Murder Under the Mistletoe
Since the Miss Fisher mysteries are set in Australia, the beginning of this episode may strike the viewer as odd: it’s a traditional northern hemisphere Christmas scene, with light flakes of snow blowing around an isolated country house.
A man hangs a string of pear-shaped lights around a tall pine tree in the living room while “The 12 Days of Christmas” plays on the gramophone. Then, as he fiddles with a burnt out bulb, an unseen killer plugs in the lights. The man falls over dead, electrocuted, and the tree falls on top of him.
This all happens before the opening credits.
After the jazzy credits, we learn that it’s actually July Down Under. Miss Phryne Fisher, her friends, and her aunt Prudence are off to spend a snowy weekend up in the mountains pretending it’s Christmas. While she’s there, Aunt Prudence also intends to sell an abandoned mine near the house they’ll be staying in; it belonged to her late husband and has been closed since a dozen men died in a tunnel collapse in 1919.
“The 12 Days of Christmas” has a special, terrible significance for Aunt Prudence, since she thought she heard the trapped miners singing it in the tunnels beneath the house and believed they were still alive for some time after the collapse.
She’s not the only one to think so, or who knows the truth behind their deaths. The man who was killed before the credits is only the first to go. A vengeful murderer is among the inhabitants of the house, intent on committing a full 12 murders in keeping with the song. The first victim was the “partridge” in the pear-light tree. One of a pair of lovers–the “turtledoves”–is smacked in the head by a small sculpture of Rodin’s The Kiss. A third person is shot in the face by a French revolver in a chicken coop containing three hens. Aunt Prudence is lured out of the house by what sounds like the calling of four birds (but since Miriam Margolyes is a series regular, she survives the attack).
When the light snow turns into a blizzard blocking the mountain roads, they find themselves trapped with a killer on the loose. After the third murder, Miss Fisher’s skis are taken and it looks like the killer has escaped and his identity is known–but that soon turns out to be wrong. He’s still among them and going on with his plans.
Everyone who’s staying in the house has received a decorated card with a number on it, so they know when their turn is coming and what kind of thematic death they’ll have to face. Miss Fisher’s is Nine Ladies Dancing… and she will come to “dance” before the episode is over, but like her aunt, of course she survives.
There are sadly no Miss Marples or Columbos I have that are placed around Christmas-time, and just one Ellery Queen and the beginning of the Peter Wimsey story The Nine Tailors that are set on New Year’s Eve. I’ll save those for next week.