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Winter Mysteries

Snow and darkness are the hallmarks of winter (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). They are also perfect for setting up an intriguing mystery. In this episode, Brook and Sarah discuss what makes a great winter mystery and a few of their favourites.


And Then There Were None (1939) Agatha Christie

Murder On the Orient Express (1934) Agatha Christie

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) Agatha Christie

In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015) Ruth Ware

One by One (2020) Ruth Ware

The Hunting Party (2018) Lucy Foley

An Unwanted Guest (2018) Shari Lapena

The Sanatorium (2020) Sarah Pearse

Death and the Dancing Footman (1941) Ngaio Marsh

Midwinter Murder: Fireside Mysteries from the Queen of Crime (2020) Agatha Christie

Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (2017) ed. Martin Edwards

Dead of Winter (1987) Arthur Penn (director)

The Woman in Red (1941) Anthony Gilbert

Trapped (2016- 2021)

“Has an Old Soviet Mystery at Last Been Solved?” New Yorker (May 10, 2021) Douglas Preston

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. I’m sitting here recording with you looking out at a little skiff of snow and the sky is pretty dark today. It feels a little mysterious.
SarahWell, that’s perfect because that’s what we’re talking about today is mysteries set in the winter. And many of us rest and spend a little bit more time indoors during the winter. And the colder, darker nights are perfect settings for mysteries. In today’s episode we’re going to discuss some of our favorite mysteries set in the winter. So it’s winter here in the northern hemisphere. Although this year at least on the west coast of Canada, it’s been a little bit slow to arrive. And so I’ve had to turn to stories to get my fill of snow. Winter really lends itself to one of my favorite setups: a remote cabin that becomes cut off because of a storm. As a reader you know that nothing good will come of that.
SarahCountless authors have written something with that premise, drawing inspiration from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None although that book isn’t actually set in winter. However, her Murder On the Orient Express she does use a train caught in a snowdrift to trap the suspects. So, Brook, maybe we can talk about that setup to start.
BrookYeah, that sounds great and as you said it’s like the perfect setting because we have got a lot of darkness, we’ve got short days, and then ah the the storms that can oftentimes thwart someone’s travel or keep them indoors when they would love to get away. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how this ah I don’t know if it if it’s really a trope but weather becomes just as much of a character in the story as the setting, because as I said it can prevent or sometimes assist the villain.
SarahOh absolutely. Evidence can disappear in the snow, right? Footsteps that you might see one hour have been completely covered up if you’re in the midst of a snowstorm.
BrookThat’s right, or conversely because there’s snow you could perhaps capture footprints or be able to see something you know scratched in the window sill in the frost. So um, it is really like I said, almost like a character for a author to play with as part of how the story unfolds.
SarahWell and and I think the weather, particularly bad weather, can really add to the tension. You feel trapped, you feel cold, you feel uncomfortable and all of those characters are feeling the same thing. And I think you feel that more with mysteries that are set in the winter than ones that are set in the summer.
BrookYeah I agree I was thinking about one of the books I read this week to get into the mood was The Sittaford Mystery, which is an Agatha Christie from 1931. And I was noticing the words the adjectives that she uses and you know she says “chilling,” “stark,” “the person was numb from the cold,” “they were snow blind” and many of those you could still use any time of the year but because you’re then coupling it with the actual temperature and the storm outside and things like that, like you said it just ramps it up. And I also thought it was interesting because all of those things are describing you know how you feel in the cold. But they’re also ways to describe fear. So it really just brings that tension to life in ah in this wintry mystery scenario.
SarahOh, that’s such a great observation that she’s using that language in in multiple ways. I love it. So I realized that I’ve read a few books recently that are set in winter and I don’t know if it’s because it’s the season and like I said in the opening that like we just really have not had much of a winter here yet. But one that came to mind is In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. So it’s probably set more in the fall because I think it’s like the first snowfall that happens. But it’s that that same setting right? It’s it’s a group of people have gone to this remote cabin. Um. And strange things start happening and you know it ends in in death.
BrookThat’s funny that you bring up a Ruth Ware book, which I also love In a Dark, Dark Wood because on my list when I was thinking about you know what what books have I read that would fall fall into this category? Another Ruth Ware title came up which is One by One and in this one she takes the group of people to a luxurious resort in the French Alps. And they’re going to have a corporate retreat and of course the snow comes and this creates a locked room or a closed circle, owever, you want to look at it, scenario and you know someone doesn’t come back from the ski slopes.
SarahWell so that reminds me of ah I think it’s The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley and so it’s a group of friends who um, every year for New Year’s you know, go on this great trip. They go to different destinations in this year they’re going to a remote hunting lodge. Things things do not go as planned. And it’s that you know I I it’s been a while since I read it but I I think there is um, a storm that comes in and they’re you know they’re feeling trapped. They’re a little panicky right? Because things are not going well ,and they can’t get out of there.
BrookYeah, so the idea of the remote cabin or even mansion or something that can happen in any season. But it’s so convenient because the snow either you know makes the roads impassable the powers probably out or you know that’s one of the things ways that the tension gets wrapped up. That’s one of the ways that the tension can get ramped up is that they can’t call out. It’s dark and their transportation probably can’t get to them. So it’s winter time seems to be a really great way to create that isolated group of people. And you know I will say cabin fever is a real thing. You mentioned Sarah that winter is late in coming and and I’m in kind of the same general geographical area as you and same we haven’t had much winter yet. But in 2016 in in my area we had what is now fondly, or not so fondly, referred to as snowpocalypse because we had one of those 30-year weather situations where we literally would get like a foot of snow a day and it lasted for like six weeks and I mean if you didn’t continually plow the driveway you literally couldn’t leave with your car. And I will admit it’s a panicky feeling when you think you know I can’t go somewhere if I need to go there and thankfully I was just with my ah my loved ones I wasn’t with a group of ah coworkers or friends from years ago or anything so everything turned out okay for us.
SarahAnd so that reminds me of a book that I read ah not too long ago. Um, called An Unwanted Guest and so in this one this is by Sherri Lapena in this one a group of people—strangers—go to a boutique hotel in I think they’re in Vermont. The actual location might not be revealed. But you know somewhere um where there’s lots of snow and sure enough, despite them being complete strangers, someone is out to get them and ah same thing that you know the power goes out and the roads are blocked because of this storm. And it takes a few days before any relief comes and by then it’s too late.
BrookYeah, it and it’s interesting isn’t it. We pick this book up and we you can probably tell from the cover. What kind of thriller or or puzzle mystery in the case of some of these ah more Golden Age stories. Um what you’re getting yourself into. But. We don’t tire of that like we realize this is going to be a group of people cut off from the world and something bad is going to go down but we ah suspend that disbelief because it’s a really fun ride. And another one of those ah that sounds really similar to the one you just described, Sarah is um and I read this a few years ago. So The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse this is a 2020 and this one I had the French Alps before this one’s in the Swiss Alps. And someone’s taken this old abandoned sanatorium and converted it to a high-end hotel and detective Ellie Warner is on a much needed vacation and she’s gone to the hotel with her significant other. And then this estranged brother and his fiancée who because they want to celebrate their engagement but the fiancée turns up missing and with the storm happening and it’s closed off access to the hotel, poor Ellen must take the case even though she was trying to be on vacation so that was a little bit of a twist because she is a detective by trade. Um, but of course it wouldn’t have been a case. She would be on otherwise except she’s the most experienced person on the scene.
SarahWell so that makes me think of a Ngaio Marsh book Death and the Dancing Footman, which is ah the setup is that um, a man has invited guests to his home and it ends in murder and ah Ngaio Marsh’s detective Alleyn is nearby. And he ends up having to go and investigate and kind of figure out what what has happened. So, I mean this device has been used for decades by authors.
BrookYep, and it’s still fun.
SarahAnd there are a few you know if someone is looking for some Golden Age examples. There are some collections of short stories. I know the Agatha Christie estate has released in 2020 a book of collected winter short stories called Midwinter Murder: Fireside Mysteries from the Queen of Crime and that includes some that are set around Christmas time and some that are just set in the winter. And Martin Edwards has compiled a book of short stories called Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries and that was published in 2017 and like all of the collections that Martin Edwards puts together it’s you know some authors that readers may be familiar with and some that they um that might be new to them. I haven’t actually read that collection, but I have read other collections that Martin Edwards has put together and and really enjoyed them so I’m sure that this would be just as enjoyable.
BrookYeah, that’s great. Um, what was the title of that Martin Edwards book again?
SarahCrimson Snow.
BrookSo that actually brings up um, something else I was thinking of is because of the whiteness. You know it’s a vast covering of white, that any color you get and this could be either in film or in or you know in a book you’re reading because the the pictures are formulating in your head, you know whether it’s a blood trail or some bright colored scarf. That’s the the clue that’s left behind you get that very stark comparison with color in the winter. Um, because it’s void of color and then something odd happens, right? Great title for a ah group of winter mysteries.
SarahAh, what about TV, Brook or films. Are there any that you can think of that are set in the winter?
BrookI’m glad that you asked, Sarah because I immediately when we talked about this topic thought back to ah a movie that we had in my house. I’m pretty sure that we recorded it from the television on a vhs machine. But because we owned it, my sister and I watched it many times and it’s called Dead of Winter. it was filmed in 1987. The actress is Mary Steenburgen and then it has Roddey McDowall and a very creepy Jan Rubes. But it’s a great story where the premise is this actress gets hired for a role but she has to go do the filming on location in this wintery mansion and of course when she gets there she soon learns that things aren’t what she expected them to be. And there’s a couple of really great twists I rewatched the film last night it is on Prime here in the US, and even though yes, there’s some hokey 1980s stuff about the movie, it still holds up. I still love the twists. So check out Dead of Winter if you want a wintry mystery, and she does try to escape in the in the ice and snow and can’t get it done.
BrookSomething new I learned about Dead of Winter on this viewing is that it is actually inspired by ah The Woman in Red, which is a Golden Age novel by Anthony Gilbert. And Anthony Gilbert is a pen name for Lucy Beatrice Malison so maybe we’ll have to look up Lucy, Sarah.
SarahThat sounds like a great idea, Brook as we learn more about Golden Age authors. So one show that I thought of is Trapped, which I think is still on Netflix. It’s Nordic Noir an Icelandic town becomes cut off due to a storm and of course there’s a murder that the police need to investigate. Ah and it’s very well, it’s Nordic noir. So um, you get the sense of feeling trapped just like the title says.
BrookExactly. It is so atmospheric, right? Those books or those films from the Nordic Noir are so, you know it when you see it. There’s just that feeling about them so any time of the year if you need a wintry fix. Which actually was a question I was going to ask you, Sarah. Do you tend to read books set in the same season? Or do you like to read opposite like if you need a summertime fix in the winter or vice versa?
SarahThat’s a really good question and I don’t know that I am that deliberate when I choose what I’m going to read. I mean I think over the summer I did read some like books set in summer and it was almost too much, right? Because in those it was very hot and and the summer was hot so it was it was a bit much. So maybe I should have been reading winter books in the summer to help me to help me cool down. But yeah I don’t I don’t know that I can say that I’m that deliberate. What about you?
BrookYeah I think that I would I would agree I’m probably not that deliberate. But I do find myself like around Christmas time choosing things that are holiday themed sometimes just to get into the spirit. So I guess I do it a little bit I can understand that when it’s hot you need something to cool you down at least mentally? Um, but the fireside. One thing that we see a lot in the winter mysteries is talk about fire and or like the fireplace. Ah, they’re grouped around the fire because it’s a probably a big cold damp place. And I enjoyed that because that’s often how we read them. Or where we like to be in the winter, cozy around the fire.. So, ah that I thought was is a nice point about them.
SarahAn unsolved real-life winter mystery that I came across, Brook is the Dyetlav Pass in the Ural Mountains in Russia. Nine skiers set out on a multi-day journey and were all found dead after they failed to reach their destination. Some died of exposure and some died with brutal injuries. Douglas Preston, who has authored several fictional mysteries with Lincoln Child, wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 2021 exploring one of 75 theories about what happened in this sixty-year-old mystery. And it was a really fascinating read. We’ll include a link to The New Yorker article in the in the show notes. But it was an event like I had never heard of this before.
BrookNo, that’s fascinating and you know how much I enjoy reading true crime. So, I’ll be looking into that link as well. Seventy-five theories?
SarahApparently yeah, yeah, and one of them being you know a yeti, attacking them. Um, and yeah I mean the the theory that um that Preston explores is it seems pretty reasonable to me. But I think it’s one of those things that they just may never actually get get an answer to.
BrookSo interesting.
SarahWell thanks for this conversation, Brook I think I’ve added a few new titles to my list of of books to read in the in the winter and I hope you have too.
BrookI definitely have and I hope that our listeners have today too and thank you everyone for joining us on another episode of clued in mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.