Ten Great Crime Stories Set During the Holidays
As we head toward the cold, night-wrapped end of the year, let us reflect on crime classics that take place in December. The holidays have it all: thrillers, heists, espionage, true crime, and noir. As winter descends and Christmas carols slide into a minor key, toss back a belt of eggnog and appreciate these sharply rendered tales of death and double-dealing.
Three Days of the Condor (1975). In this spy-on-the-run thriller, Christmas is purely a background moan in the wind. Front and center are betrayal and paranoia, as Robert Redford races to find out who executed his entire office—CIA analysts who “just read books.” His deadly contest with assassins and Langley bureaucrats unfolds on gray, doom-laden New York streets, surrounded by carolers and bell ringers. O tidings of comfort and joy!
Ronin (1998). Nominally, this movie is about former Cold War operatives cut loose from their cause; warriors wandering lost in a remade world. But at heart, Ronin is a MacGuffin hunt. And thank God. Because Ronin gives us film’s best Parisian car chase. And best figure skating death. (Bonus: the skater who takes a sniper round is former Soviet Bloc Olympic champion Katarina Witt.) To steal a mysterious briefcase, the movie’s antihero crew essentially takes down France on Christmas Day—half of it accidentally, via ricochet. How far will they go? Will they choose money? Honor? Are you kidding? They’d ram a BMW into Santa’s workshop and ninja kick Mrs. Claus to get that silver case.
The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy (1984). We remember this as the crackling debut that introduced Jack Ryan, launched the era of the military techno-thriller, and made propeller cavitation sexy. We forget that it takes place between December third and twentieth. The novel’s both cat-and-mouse submarine hunt and geopolitical game of Risk, and its final chapter is “The Eighteenth Day.” Thermonuclear missiles in a pear tree. It’s not Silent Night, but Silent Running.
The Force, Don Winslow (2017). This sprawling novel about compromised cops and city corruption opens in New York on Christmas Eve. “Yeah, Christmas crazy. Always crazy in New York, Malone thinks.” This is a soaring, down-and-dirty epic about the downfall of a good cop—a hero who knows he has become what he set out to fight, and who seeks redemption in a city where no one will catch you when you fall. Certainly not Christmas angels.
The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth (2016). A vivid, chilling account of the serial killings that gripped Austin, Texas between New Year’s Eve 1884 and Christmas 1885. Called the Servant Girl Annihilator, the Invisible Nemesis, and the Axe Man, the never-identified killer struck at night, killing African American domestic workers and wealthy white women. His attacks reached their ferocious peak on Christmas Eve 1885, when two women were axed in their homes, hours apart. I live in Austin. Hollandsworth’s book has revealed deeper shadows here than I ever imagined.
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1965). The foundational American true crime book remains notable for its empathetic focus on the victims, and the investigators, as much as on the killers. The icy heart of the story takes place between November 15, 1959, when the Clutter family was shotgunned, and December 31, when their killers were arrested. There’s no joking about this one, just a reminder to read it, soberly, and remember the Clutter family.
“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891). This Sherlock Holmes mystery features a Christmas goose and a stolen gemstone. “Just see how it glints and sparkles,” Holmes says of the priceless jewel. “Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits.” Well. I know what I want in my Christmas stocking.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Frank Capra’s family classic is noir to the core. It’s an unflinching story of dreams dashed and sacrifice seemingly unrewarded. Of goodness mocked and turned against the best heart in Bedford Falls—which drives George Bailey to the brink of death on a snowy bridge. The Potterville timeline reveals gangster capitalism in all its corruption, where the townsfolk wallow in crime, brought to their knees on snow-covered mean streets. Listen to alternate-timeline Donna Reed scream when George tries to tell her there’s another world, a better world. Sure, a guardian angel rescues George. But can any of us truly escape?
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss (1957). The classic heist story. Whether from a bad case of grinchy heart or get-off-my-lawn variety sociopathy, the Grinch decides to hit Who-ville. He preps disguises and knuckles his dog, Max, into being his wheelman. He strips the ville bare. Then, in a turn fit for a cynical Seventies PI flick, he takes his plunder to the top of Mt. Crumpit—not to fence it, but dump it. Nihilistic, man. But he hasn’t counted on little Cindy-Lou Who, the story’s femme Who-tale, to see through him. She leads the siren song that lures the Grinch back to town, loot in tow. The rest is a dark feast.
Die Hard (1988). The top dog of holiday thrillers. I’ll take no backtalk on this. I teach Die Hard in writing workshops. And we’re not arguing, “Is it a Christmas movie?” That was settled when my son went to an ugly sweater party wearing a sweatshirt that said, NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO. (To the mom who snarled, “You’re a disgusting mother” at me, I say: and proud of it!) At our house, it’s not Christmas until my daughter acts out Hans Gruber’s plunge from Nakatomi Tower. To repeat: no arguing. John McClane’s wife is named HOLLY.
Meg Gardiner is the author of fourteen novels including UNSUB, which won the 2018 Barry Award for Best Thriller, and China Lake, which won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. A former lawyer and three-time Jeopardy! champion, she lives in Austin. The Dark Corners of the Night, the third novel in the UNSUB series, will be published in February 2020.