As the end of this holiday season approaches, I want to pay tribute to the author of one of the funniest holiday mysteries ever written, Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005). I had the great good fortune of knowing Charlotte, and she was everything one would expect from reading her witty, literate, and clever mysteries. Though born in Canada, she emigrated with her family to the United States in 1923 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951. She eventually rose to become vice president of an advertizing firm in Boston before she retired in 1982.
She eventually sold over a million copies of her books, and mystery fans everywhere came to adore her series characters: Peter and Helen Shandy, Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn, the Grub-and-Stakers, and Madoc and Janet Rhys.
It has been nearly thirty years since I first read Charlotte MacLeod, and frankly I'm not sure which book I read first. It was either the first Sarah and Max book, The Family Vault, or the first Peter Shandy book, Rest You Merry, though I'm inclined to think it might have been the former. Either way, after one taste of Charlotte's heady, deliciously, wickedly funny prose, I was hooked.
In 1985 or 1986 Charlotte visited Houston to sign The Curse of the Giant Hogweed at Murder by the Book, and that was my first face-to-face meeting with her, though we had exchanged a few letters -- after my no-doubt-gushing fan letter to her. At the signing she said something I will never forget. One of her fans approached her at the signing table and said, "Miss MacLeod, it's such an honor to meet you." Charlotte took the profferred hand but smilingly shook her head. "You have that the wrong way round," she said. "I am the one who is honored to meet you. Without readers I wouldn't have a job." That's a lesson many writers should learn and remember.
I opened with mentioning the funniest holiday mystery ever written, didn't I? Well, that would be Rest You Merry, the first Peter Shandy book. Peter returns home after a time away to discover that his neighbors have gone way over the top in decorating their homes and their lawns for the holidays. Then he discovers a dead body in his own house, and the fun begins. If you have ever bemoaned the excesses of the season, Rest You Merry will have you chortling right away.
Charlotte set her two most famous series in Massachusetts, the Kelling-Bittersohn books in Boston, the Shandy books in the western part of the state. She also set two series in her native Canada, the Grub-and-Stakers books and the Madoc and Janet Rhys books. For these she originally used the name "Alisa Craig." Another funny holiday title is the second Madoc and Janet book, Murder Goes Mumming.
Charlotte MacLeod was one of the great ladies of the contemporary traditional/cozy mystery. Treat yourself this holiday season and read one of her charming mysteries.