Eight o’clock, and a church bell was ringing out a Christmas carol, alternately brash and wispy, as the wind carried the tune like a temperamental choirboy.
O Little Town of Bethlehem. As he passed the church Meecham sang with the bells, a nervous obsessive singing that had nothing to do with music but was only an expression of disquiet. People were gathered on the church steps, huddled protectively in groups to withstand the force of the weather and of other groups. O Little Town.
Two blocks beyond the church he saw, in the glare of his headlights, a woman walking alone down the street. She was limping, heading into the wind with her coat and scarf flapping uselessly behind her like sails torn from a mast. Meecham pulled over to the curb. The woman turned abruptly, glanced at the car, and then began walking again with the springy uneven steps of someone accustomed to walking on ice.
commentary: I like this as an extreme example of a crime story’s attitude to Christmas. A murder story with a festive setting always seems like a great idea – look at the huge success of Mystery in White, the reprint from the 1930s that was a huge bestseller in 2014. And a good few Xmas mysteries have graced the blog at this time of the year.
But usually the author doesn’t make much of it – perhaps the snow as a blocker of travel, a trap, a medium for footprints. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a great book, but could really have been HP’s Easter.
The other route is this one: Margaret Millar wrote magnificent domestic noir books, and she wasn’t about to start getting sentimental about Christmas. The snow is something of an issue in this Michigan-set book, but Christmas is only there for sneering at, as in this unnecessarily harsh and bleak scene. I find it hard to imagine the bell (or bells) playing a Christmas carol at all, but of course they do it badly. Even the church-goers are (apparently) mean to each other. For goodness sake, you feel like saying, lighten up.
But you can’t argue with Millar’s greatness: she was a terrific writer, the books are tours de force. She was born in 1915, so this has been her centenary year – marked by some crime fans but not much otherwise. This book made an appearance on the blog earlier in the year to mark her birthday.
The picture is called Dressed for Snow, and is from the Tyne and Wear Archives.