Written by Alexandra Benedict


Alexandra Benedict’s latest novel is  Murder on the Christmas Express.




Eighteen passengers. Seven stops. One killer.

In the early hours of Christmas Eve, the sleeper train to the Highlands is derailed, along with the festive plans of its travellers. With the train stuck in snow in the middle of nowhere, a killer stalks its carriages, picking off passengers one by one. Those who sleep on the sleeper train may never wake again. Can former Met detective Roz Parker find the killer before they kill again?







At this time of year in the UK, when the sun goes to bed long before we do, dark fiction draws us in like a coal fire. Here are five of my favourites:




Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie


Let’s start with a shiny bauble of the Golden Age. Simeon Lee, rich businessman and appalling father, invites members of his family to his country house. His four sons, two estranged, are present, along with his sole grandchild. On Christmas Eve, Lee is found dead in a locked room and the brilliant Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate.


The list of suspects, along with the number of relatives present, grows by the hour. The death of Simeon is a bloody one compared to most Christie murders. The contrast of such violence with the peace and joy often associated with this time of year shows up the darkness at the heart of Christmas. As Poirot says, ‘There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy, honourable hypocrisy, hypocrisy undertaken for le bon motif, c’est entendu, but nonetheless hypocrisy’. Christie often highlights humanity’s hypocrisy, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas contains some of her finest satire alongside ingenious plotting and an atmosphere at once festive and chilling.



The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin


Imogen, a recent widow, is beset by grief, not helped by mysterious phone calls accuses her of killing her late husband, Ivor. Besieged by friends and relatives over Christmas, Imogen must navigate complex and treacherous family dynamics while negotiating unfolding mysteries around Ivor’s death. The reader must also find their way through a story led by Imogen’s highly likeable but possibly less-than-reliable narrator.


The novel is a deeply-felt treatise on bereavement – ‘she felt not merely like a half person, but a half person who has been bisected vertically for an anatomical demonstration…all the raw, bleeding ends on display as the audience files past, each in turn peering with fascinated horror.’ As a title, The Long Shadow is apt, encompassing the far reaching shadow of grief, the dark side of humanity, and the shade thrown by Imogen at everyone around her.


Fremlin’s prose is sharp and delicious, full of wit and similes that sing. If you’ve never read any of Celia Fremlin’s gems, then The Long Shadow is a great place to start. If you are already a Fremlin fan, then treat yourself to a re-read of the frosty masterpiece this Christmas.



The Corpse in the Snowman by Nicholas Blake


If you’re after an icy atmosphere and a beautifully-written winter landscape as a backdrop, then go for Nicholas Blake’s The Corpse in the Snowman, also known as The Case of the Abominable Snowman.


Another country house Christmas mystery in which, as the title suggests, a dead body is discovered inside a snowman. The protagonist is private detective Nigel Strangeways, one of my very favourite Golden Age detectives, is based on W H Auden. He has various quirks, is very literate and devises a sublime way to catch the killer.

Blake is more well-known as Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, so you’d expect the prose to be beautiful, and it is. Stunning but never showy, Blake’s writing is full of descriptive genius, with similes as exquisite and original as snowflakes - ‘a segment of snow slid, smooth as a camera shutter, off its face’. The puzzle element of the plot is also beautifully achieved, with the ending of the book brilliant to study from a writer’s point of view as well as so very satisfying as a reader.



An English Murder by Cyril Hare



Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink (one of the best names of the Golden Age, and highly appropriate for Christmas fiction) is a concentration camp survivor and an ‘ageing scholar whose health is not what it was’. Like Poirot, Bottwink is able to observe from the distance the peculiarities of the English -  ‘I sometimes feel that I shall never understand England. Never.’ The ‘sometime Professor of Modern History at the University of Prague’ is at cold Warbeck Hall to decipher the Warbeck Papers. The other houseguests, and suspects, in the case cover a fascinating range of society – from the aristocrats to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Briggs the fabulous butler.


Satire runs through the book, with social hierarchies examined. It may be another country house festive murder mystery but there’s a sense that the age of the English Manor House is ending. When the snow thaws in this post-war landscape, Warbeck Hall, and England, will be changed forever.


Like the very best Christmas fare, Hare’s language is rich yet easy to digest. Humour infuses everything, like brandy-soaked raisins in a pudding, making An English Murder a festive treat.



The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett


For my last choice, we leave the UK for New York, swap cosy for hard boiled (although I could argue about that distinction for days) in Hammett’s last published novel. Nick, an ex-detective, is drawn back into investigation when a former acquaintance is found shot dead. Nora and her wonderfully ‘wicked jaw’ joins him in tracking down the killer and they make a wonderful detecting team. There are too few married detective partnerships. Their relationship is full of spark, wit and challenge and we travel with them through various Manhattan Speakeasies and vicariously drink a prodigious quantity of alcohol in the process of solving the murder. Christmas doesn’t play as much of a part as I’d like, but it is still a wonderful book to read at this time of year. It makes me long to experience a Manhattan Christmas. And there’s a fabulous dog – Asta.


All of these these books offer light and shade. As the closing of The Long Shadow shows, even under the snow of loss, new growth begins. ‘The cold, late air in which, already, there was a hint of Spring’. However, like a coal fire on the longest night, festive thrillers bring light and warmth, but they are always fuelled by the dark.


Happy Christmas Thrills!

Murder on the Christmas Express

Alexandra Benedict

10 November 2022

Simon & Schuster

Hardback £14.99


Alexandra Benedict

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