For a person who had a Halloween themed wedding reception complete with a huge haunted house wedding cake, intricately carved Jack O’Lanterns as centerpieces, handmade masks, wax lips, candy corn, candied apples and cobwebs dangling, you’d think I would have read every mystery that has wisps of the dark day, right? Well until I decided to write this article I had no idea how many, or few books included All Hallow’s Eve.
Halloween has begun a recent resurgence among adults. During the teens and 20’s, Halloween gatherings were a major part of American life. Adults were the revelers. it wasn’t until the 30’s and 40’s that children began to trick or treat, and now with the perception of it as a dangerous time for the kiddies, full grown kids are reclaiming the holiday. The Wall Street Journal had an article on halloween collectibles showing it as the hottest and most expensive collecting trend in recent years. The Bogie books put out by Dennison to ballyhoo their products fetch anywhere from $50 to $200 each! And that old devil cutout grandma had hanging from the porch could be worth 250 smackeroos!
The origin of Halloween can be found in Celtic pagan Druid rites celebrated eons ago when it was thought that on this one night the dead walked the earth. The day slowly took on other aspects but superstitions are still found. Fairies, evil spirits, apples, pumpkins remain in the Halloween festivities we share. An old custom claimed a girl who gazes into a mirror at midnight will see her future husband’s face peering back. Halloween cakes had charms baked into the batter– a ring, key, thimble, penny, button, to foretell respectively ‘a speedy marriage, a journey, spinsterhood, wealth, and bachelorhood’ according to THE BOOK OF HALLOWEEN Ruth E. Kelly (1919).
Strangely enough, very few authors utilize the holiday to its fullest potential. It’s mostly used as a backdrop, which I must confess puzzles me. With such a rich spooky theme already in place to add to the spice of murder, you would think it would be utilized to the max. More mysteries with Christmas as a theme are written than Halloween. The only thing that comes to mind to explain such a phenomenon is because Halloween is so suitable that there would be no contrast between a night of evil spirits and a murder or two, whereas Christmas traditionally thought of as a happy time, is jolted out of the merry making by murder. Whatever the reason, Halloween in the mysteries I found is more likely a small aspect of the plot rather than the main focus. The best exception to this trend is the Deco title, HIDE IN THE DARK, An All Hallow’s Eve Mystery, Frances Noyes Hart 1929. Not only set on the demonic day, traditional games like looking in the mirror to see her true love’s face, and bobbing for apples are played by the characters. There’s even a ghost story about the old plantation the party is taking place in, and the required terrible storm strands the guests. A murder is committed while the revelers are playing a game of hide in the dark. The person who was it, really got it!
In TRICK OR TREAT, Doris Miles Disney (1954), a ghost trick or treater shoots the hostess of a Halloween bridge party point blank as she answers the door for what should be a kid asking for candy. My kind of trick!
TRICKS, Ed McBain (1987) cleverly uses trick or treaters, but these particular costumed beggers never wait long rnough for the goodies, they hold up liquor stores and shoot the owners on the way out. This is the only title, besides the irrepressible and witty REVENGE OF THE COOTIE GIRLS, Sparkle Hayter (1997) with green wigged Groucho Marx female gunmen, that begins on Halloween and stays there throughout the entire novel. HALLOWEEN PARTY, Agatha Christie (1969) ingeniously takes the bobbing for apples tradition and creates a murder weapon out of the bucket of water.
Some recent reads with a modern Halloween feel include HATCHET JOB, J. E. Neighbors (1988), where a human attraction in a charity run haunted house is killed by the very axe that was being used for the gruesome display. The excellent A FEW DYING WORDS, Paula Gosling (1993) has an annual spectacular Halloween festival called The Howl featuring another favorite–amusement rides! A hip Halloween party complete with modern sound effects and outlandish costumes is beautifully rendered in SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, Jerrilyn Farmer (1998) the Anthony and Mccavity nominated title. Another party is in full blast at the local bar in STRANGE BREW Kathy Hogan Trocheck (1997), the best costume prize won by a voluptuous biker babe who turned out to be a biker boy. An Irish party is beautifully evoked in DEAD ENDS Ann C. Fallon (1992). it includes fireworks, an UK custom, and carved turnips, a practice that Americans also used to observe, and bonfires. A particular favorite of mine, MOURNING SHIFT, kathleen Taylor (1998), not only has the main character dressed as the Lollipop Guild (read Munchkin) from the Wizard of Oz and a diner special Tomato Goul-ash, but also an exploding pumpkin and a real live ghost!
One of the odder things I have noticed: the books with the titles of Halloween and trick or treat usually have minimal to do with the actual holiday. Other than the aptly titled TRICK OR TREAT MURDER, Leslie Meier (1996), where a good part of the novel builds up to Halloween resplendent with hayrides, pumpkin patches and orange cupcakes, and DEATH ON ALL HALLOW’S EVE, Alan Campbell McLean (1958), a super English rural police procedural involving a vacation retreat called Holiday Home and a suspect dressed as a devil–the rest are sadly lacking in the howling spirit.
HALLOWEEN, Ben Greer (1978) uses the holiday for action and atmosphere in a psychological suspense novel. HALLOWEEN, Leslie Burgess (1941) has all the trappings of a gothic novel, remote Scottish castle, ghost tales, but the only holiday aspect is the tale of Scottish soldiers massacred on the tower stairs one Halloween day centuries ago,where a member of the family fell down the same stairs many Halloweens later. TRICK OR TREAT Caroline Crane (1983) does start with children going about getting their candy but the story then evolves into another tale of psychological suspense . TRICK OR TREAT Leslie Glaister (1991), although a fantastic novel is again scarely touched by the holidday, but it does utilize the British Guy Fawkes, The English burn a straw effigy of the rebel Guy Fawkes every November 5th. Inspired by the English custom of burning a guy, many mysteries, American included, have used the scarecrow as a open hiding place for a body. It has been used by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Catherine Aird. In THE SCARECROW MURDERS, Frederic Arnold Kummer (1938) a badly beaten body is propped up in the field where the scarecrow used to be. In QUOTH THE RAVEN, Jane haddam (1991), a college campus is having an autumn festival with a effigy bonfire and DANCE OF THE SCARECROWS, Ray Siphard (1996), concerns the aftermath of a Halloween dance when a human scarecrow is found tacked up. STANDING IN THE SHADOWS, Michelle Spring (1998) uses a bonfire as a focal point. Although some of the novels are not considered Halloween mysteries persay, nonetheless the scarecrow as human motif likens enough to Halloween for reading pleasure.
Another Halloween mystery theme is devil worship and witchcraft. Some take the subject seriously. THE WIZARD OF LA-LA LAND, Robert Campbell, 1994 is a hard-boiled look at a cult and its huge Halloween bash Hollywood style with a party theme of S&M in hell. THE BOWL OF NIGHT, Rosemary Edghill (1996) is written from a white witch’s viewpoint and encompasses Hallowfest,-a Bast pagan festival held on Columbus Day weekend so as not to disturb the witches holy day. Other titles, such as THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Barbara Michaels (1969), are more romanticized in nature–a town hides its witchcraft practices from a visitor. DEATH ON ALL HALLOWE’EN, Leo Bruce (1970) is a more traditional, humorous story set in a Kent village with scholar detective Carolus Deene investigating a possible coven of witches and the death of a boy years ago on the night of all spirits.
MYSTERY FOR HALLOWEEN edited by Cynthia Manson is one of many Halloween themed short story books. It is more of a supernatural or eerie nature and doesn’t have anything to do with the holiday. Nonetheless, they are great for the spooky spirit and a couple of my favorite stories are THE HAUNTED PORTRAIT, Lawrence Treat (1972) about a portrait of a murder victim that moans and groans as the museum patrons gaze upon it, and THIS IS DEATH Donald Westlake (1978) a man commits suicide by hanging and at the last second changes his mind, oops! Too late!. MURDER FOR HALLOWEEN edited by the fabulous Michelle Slung and Roland Hartman (Otto Penzler) contains collected Halloween tales including, TRICK OR TREAT, Anthony Boucher (1945), a twist on the trick or treat killer;, an original novella PORT PIE HAT, Peter Straub (1994) evokes jazz greats on a smoky Oct. 31st; and THE THEFT OF A HALLOWEEN PUMPKIN, Ed Hoch (1983) with thief Nick Velvet hired to steal a cheap plastic pumpkin off a porch. It is a grand compilation of some of the best mysteries writers alive or dead.
And then there are all the marginal Halloween mysteries fine in their own right but not really to be read for the holiday aspect. THE DOOR OF DEATH, John Esteven (1929) is a marvelous melodramatic tale with sinister happenings: death occurring in the middle of Halloween night; objects of torture collected by the victim’s husband; and a door that is only used in the event of a death to remove the body, which has eerily been opened; are some of the spooky situations. SMOKE SCREEN, Marianne MacDonald (1999) has her victim eliminated on Halloween night. FAR TO GO, Mary Louise Aswell (1957) begins the day after Halloween. An appeal on television for a missing clown trick or treater is begins the story. TWILIGHT, Nancy Pickard (1995) creates an autumn festival with caricatures on pumpkins carved on site and store workers are dressed as witches. MURDER IN A NICE NEIGHBORHOOD, Lora Roberts (1994) the killer tries to snuff out its victim while in a gorilla suit. ALL HALLOW’S EVIL, Valerie Wolzian (1992) a body is found stabbed on a front porch and as the blurb states “Clearly somebody’s idea of trick or treat had turned deadly.” MURDER AMONG US, Jonnie Jacobs (1998) Little dimestore skeletons are left in a mailbox as a warning to lay off investigating a crime, while THE SCENT OF MURDER, Barbara Block (1997) Halloween is the backdrop for a missing teenager and as an added bonus a ferret named Mr. Bones is involved–what could be better? Even with minimal spooks flowing from some tomes, taken altogether on a dark and stormy night whether it be on All Hallow’s Eve or a hot and sultry August one, the cumulative effect will compel you to look over your shoulder every now and again to be sure the ghosties and goblins are kept far at bay! Hope this has been a ‘treat’ for you, if not send your ‘tricks’ to the devil!
My thanks to Lizze Hayes for her Halloween list, Janet Lawson for updating it.
This article was first written in late 1990s, and streamlined, amended now. Since the late 90s, a slew of new Halloweenie mysteries have been found and/or newly penned. For an extensive fantastic list–go to Janet Lawson’s mystery newsletter–a well established and respected authority on crime fiction.