Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas in January: Guest Post by Donna Andrews

Donna Andrews is the author of the Meg Langslow mysteries, including Stork Raving Mad and Swan for the Money. She has won the Agatha, Anthony, and Barry awards, a Romantic Times award for best first novel, and four Lefty and two Toby Bromberg Awards for funniest mystery. When not writing fiction, Andrews is a self-confessed nerd, rarely found away from her computer, unless she's messing in the garden.

Donna Andrews:
Christmas in January

So many Christmas projects to tackle! Planning the decorations, organizing the parties, thinking of appropriate presents, figuring out who to kill and where to hide the body.

Er . . . yes, hide the body. You did realize we were talking about a Christmas mystery, right? Not my actual real-life holiday, which rarely involves homicide. Maybe a few random homicidal urges if I have to hit the mall this time of year, but that's it.

How the Finch Stole Christmas is my fourth Christmas mystery, out of twenty-three books in the series. Why so many Christmas mysteries? Well, my publisher seems to like them—presumably because readers like and buy them. And my editor's big on Christmas in real life, which makes him a good person to have around when you're writing a Christmas mystery. I always imagine him standing over my shoulder jingling a set of sleigh bells while shouting “More tinsel! More carols! More snow! More mistletoe!”

But there's also the fact that Christmas is a particularly effective setting for a mystery. The whole point of a mystery, some say, is that the crime—usually, of course, a murder—rends the fabric of our society, and that watching the protagonist solve the crime gives us the satisfaction of seeing the fabric knit together again. And if a murder rends the social fabric at any time, how much more dramatic is the rending when it happens at Christmas, when most of us are trying so hard to make the holidays perfect, festive, and meaningful for ourselves, our families, and our friends.

In fact, one good thing about a Christmas mystery is that it gives Meg Langslow, my amateur detective, a whole new reason for sleuthing. I'm not big on amateur sleuths who dabble in crime-solving because they think it's fun. And there's a limit to how many times you can get away with your protagonist deciding “the police are idiots, so I have to solve it.” For me, the most effective reason for Meg to get involved is that one of her friends or family members is in danger—suspected of the crime, for example, or thought to be the killer's next possible victim. Meg respects the abilities and integrity of Chief Burke, Caerphilly's top law enforcement officer—but she also knows he's working with the limited resources of a small town police department. So if she thinks that there's a killer loose who might be targeting someone she loves . . . or if every day that passes brings more pain to someone who's under a cloud of suspicion . . . she'll get involved.

And in a Christmas mystery, she can have another compelling motive for involvement—the longer the crime goes unsolved, the more it spoils the festive season. In fact, saving Christmas isn't just a splendid reason for Meg to sleuth—the resulting time pressure adds greatly to the suspense and pacing that's essential for any mystery.

Of course, if you're setting a murder at Christmas, you have to be careful who your victim is. I got away with killing the guy playing Santa in Six Geese a-Slaying—but only because I made it clear he was the meanest, nastiest reprobate ever to don a white beard and grudgingly mutter “Ho, ho, ho!” As a general rule, I try not to kill nice people in my mysteries—or if I must, I try to do it offstage. Obnoxious people make much more satisfactory victims—particularly at Christmas time, when we even feel a little bit sorry for Scrooge, the Grinch, and Henry F. Potter (the curmudgeon who did his best to ruin George Bailey's life in It's a Wonderful Life). I'd tell you why the victim in How the Finch Stole Christmas is the right sort of person to knock off in a holiday mystery . . . but that would be a spoiler.

But the best things about setting a humorous mystery at Christmas? It's the perfect time of year for heart-warming stories . . . and also a season rich in comedy. The crazy or thoughtful things we do while seeking the perfect present for someone . . . the comic or dramatic adventures we have getting home for the holidays . . . the way a sad story of someone in need tugs harder on our heartstrings at Christmas, and makes us happier than ever when we find a way to help . . . things humorous and heartwarming are not only both on our mind at Christmas, but they're closer together—maybe even intertwined.

So perhaps it's not surprising that I'm now working on my fifth Christmas mystery. My publisher plans to have Lark! The Herald Angels Sing out in time for Christmas 2018. Which means I'm hard at work plotting another Yuletide adventure for Meg.

It also means that I'll still be writing about Christmas in January. Probably also in February. Everyone else will have put away their trees and ornaments and moved on to Valentine's Day, and I'll still be immersed in thoughts of Christmas pageants, stockings, carols, trees, decorations, presents . . .

Well, there are worse ways to spend the long cold winter. Here's to Christmas in January!


Anonymous said...

Great fun to read this!

Coco Ihle said...

I love Christmas so much, I often leave my tree and decorations up until well into spring, so I'll be thinking of you during these months, Donna. HOW THE FINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS sounds really cute and I'll look forward to reading it. Have fun writing it!