By Millie Vickerstaff and Joe Rossiter
‘Mystery in White’ – Joe Rossiter
Right from its cover illustration – a train stuck in the snow with its front light giving the freshly fallen blanket a warm glow – Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon perfectly captures the essence of Winter. The story centres around a group of characters travelling on the 11:37 from St Pancras on Christmas Eve, each with different plans to spend the next day, when the train is stranded. The group venture out in the hope of finding Hemmersby Station and the possibility of making their connections but are quickly caught up in the blizzard outside. They try to find a refuge while the snow falls and come across a house, unlocked but with no one inside, the fire lit and the table set for dinner. The kettle, whistling, but there is no one to make the tea.
Written in the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, the story is cosy but has an edge of danger: the house is warm and welcoming as the characters spread around it – discovering several suspicious elements in the process – but the prospect of a returning owner, as well as the news of a disturbing event on the train, make for a really compelling read.
Farjeon mixes in the supernatural, with the character of Mr Maltby a member of the Royal Psychical Society. Although on first sight his observations seem far-fetched and misguided, the links presented between Maltby’s studies and the reality of human nature are an intriguing subplot within the house.
This book is brilliant escapism during dark, cold days
This book is brilliant escapism during dark, cold days with a fascinating plot neatly wrapped up at the climax. It perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the holidays, not just through the setting on Christmas Eve, but also the sensations of Winter that come across in Farjeon’s writing: the hazy country lanes, thick, crisp snow and the warm crackling of the fire. With his detailed and sharp description, the reader can feel the tension as the story progresses just as much as the biting cold outside.
‘Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim’ – Millie Vickerstaff
For me, nothing sets the festive season aglow quite like the voice and writing of David Sedaris, who’s at his entertaining best when talking of Christmas. With aplomb and perceptive eye, he casts a light on the quirks and charming idiosyncrasies of family and the holiday season, and douses it with his sparkling wit.
Sedaris … casts a light on the quirks and charming idiosyncrasies of family and the holiday season
His essays ‘The Santaland Diaries’ which were first read by Sedaris in 1992 on NPR, are a must-read or -listen over the holidays (you can easily find them, read by Sedaris on Youtube). He writes of the trials and tribulations of applying as and becoming an elf at Macy’s at the zenith of Christmas mania. His droll accounts as a “cheer”-less and begrudging elf, only hired for his height are hysterically funny and capture the silliness behind the veneer of our continuous seasonal good “cheer” and annual Christmas displays. He writes: “It makes one’s mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment … I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, ‘You must be exhausted,’ or ‘I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.’”
The essays and stories in his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – which will also have you ho,ho,ho—ing – draw your attention to the frankly absurd, but still charming rituals and traditions we all ascribe to our festive season. In his essay Eight to Ten Black Men he describes the different opening questions he uses whilst travelling abroad, to get a proper sense of the country and its national character. He finds “When do you open your Christmas presents” to be a good conversation starter, as it is generally followed by a deluge of entirely different Christmas rituals. Sedaris meanders through the idiosyncrasies of our festivities, from the sounds that roosters make – from “kiri-a-kee” in Greece to “coco-rico” in France – to how Saint Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands, accompanied by the eponymous “six to eight black men”. Although Sedaris touches on so much more than just the Christmas season in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, the stories throughout are marinated in family and culture and their quirks, and that’s surely a perfect reason for festive good cheer!
Image: Anna Kuptsova