Christmas in Books, & Christmas in Dublin


Christmas Book Scenes are back!  During December I like to post entries which are more Christmas in Books than Clothes in Books, and kind readers say it puts them in a seasonal mood.

If you have a favourite Christmas book or scene not featured yet – please let me know


Death by Bequest by Mary McMullen



[Exceprt from book] It took Celia a while, on that late morning of wet crisp air and thin sun, to figure out why Dublin at Christmasime reminded her of Dickens.

There was a mysterious and all-pervading deep acrid odor, and a haze, part moisture and part diffused smoke, which made the ruddy brick buildings on the street she walked look like old lithographs of themselves…She identified the small and the blur in the air: soft coal burning, cheap, long since banished from more affluent cities.

She paused to sketch the pattern of a railing here, a cornice there, the dappled design of rusticated stonework. From O’Connell Street, she made her way up busy Grafton Street, with its shops and swarms of Christmas shoppers, to the bare-boughed quiet of St Stephen’s Green. There with expensive hotels nearby, the Royal Hibernian, the Shelbourne, the Russell, the soft-coal smell seemed to vanish.


[Celia needs to buy Christmas presents] Press on Celia. Silver cufflinks, shaped and studded like starfish. A slender little gold-plated clothespin to clip a tie. He could use another cigarette case; she bought one in tobacco brown Morocco. Turning to leave the shop, she hesitated inside its glass door, looking out at the rain, the river of umbrellaed bodies.

Another hour or less ought to do it, spend a little more time and pile up some more packages on this madhouse thoroughfare and then retreat to the relative quiet of Dawson street for books and records.


comments: I recently looked at an Ursula Curtiss book, Letter of Intent, and mentioned in passing that she came from a writing family. She was a sister of Mary McMullen, who featured on the blog a while back with her first book Stranglehold.

This came many years later, but doesn’t feel that different in setting and atmosphere, I did have to keep reminding myself it was written in the 1970s.

It’s about a fashionable young couple in New York, Waldo and Celia – he works in an art gallery, she designs fabrics. We know from p1 that Waldo is considering murdering Celia. There is – note the title – a will, a bequest, and a relation who thinks he was unfairly missed out. There is something that may be more valuable than it seems, and there are people who might be falling out of love with one person and into love with another.

So yes, we can settle right in to enjoy this one. It took a (to me) unexpected turn: New York and Philadelphia both featured, and then suddenly everyone moved to Ireland at Christmas time, and the rest of the book took place there – in Dublin and in the surrounding area.

Celia gets a new dress for a party – ‘a long dress of misty gray chiffon, at once demure and sexy, with a cape-veil of chiffon floating over her arms and drifting to the hem at the back; it cost a ridiculous amount of money but Waldo said she must have it, she looked marvelous in it…”It looks a little like a high-class shroud.”

She also wears a Donegal tweed trouser suit – this is a much more modern version, but I would love to have found a 70s version of that.

Celia goes into a church, and has an interesting take on prayer:

It had taken her a great many years to see that prayer was not so much a matter of asking for something as a clear statement of what was really important to you; a definition of who you were, and what you lacked, and what you were sorry for, what you wished to be. A peeling away to your essence.

There’s not really much detection or secrets in the plot, it’s just a question of how various nefarious goings-on will pan out. It’s a nice short book, and McMullen keeps the tension going.

Altogether, an entertaining read, with sometimes more than you are expecting.

Woman on a Dublin street corner from the National Library of Ireland.

Huband Bridge in Dublin in late autumn also from national library of Ireland 

2 photos are stills from a lovely newsreel film ‘Christmas in the City’ from the Irish Film Institute.

Woman in grey dress by Toni Frissell from Library of Congress  - for Vogue - Ann Taylor (


  1. To state a further author relative, Helen Reilly was the mother of both Curtiss and McMullen. She was an extremely popular cosy mystery writer with a long list of publications.
    Chris Wallace

    1. Thanks - I'm trying to work out if I ever read anything by Helen Reilly. The other two I own some books, have read them, there are plenty out there second-hand. But don't seem to see her so much. I must find something by her.
      Quite the family!

  2. Just from your description, Moira, I get a strong sense of place from this book. I give credit, too, to an author who can give a sense of place in more than one location. The plot sounds interesting, too. Oh, and thank you for the background information. I find it fascinating learn that so-and-so is the [ ] of so-and-so, or was friends with so-and-so, etc..

    1. Thanks Margot! I really wasn't expecting Dublin to pop up in this book, but it was a lovely nostalgic look at the city - it's a place that has changed a lot since the book was written. And I think Mary McMullen is a good writer.

  3. I have to say that my visit to Dublin in 2015 was at a much cleaner time.

    Open Library seems to like Mary McMullen a lot - there are a dozen or so of her works available to borrow there, including this one.

    1. As I said to Margot - Dublin has changed a lot! I know everywhere has, but Ireland in general is somewhere I've been visiting all my life, and it is a dramatically different place from 40 years ago.
      Thanks as ever for the links. I read quite a few books by McMullen back in the day, and would be happy to revisit some of them.

  4. My favorite Christmas in Books chapter is from Heaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace, one of my favorite authors, and it involves the Ray family planning for Christmas. I might have to scan it to you, Moira, because you would certainly appreciate it. The series is set in the early part of the 19th century in Minnesota and Betsy and her friends wear some very appealing clothes. There is even a dressmaker called Miss Mix who comes to stay with the family to sew their more complicated clothes. Mr. Ray has his own shoe store but it must do very well for him to dress his family so well!

    1. Constance, I have ordered a copy of this book, managed to find it online! I think it will take a while to arrive, so look for it in 2024 Christmas Scenes! Thanks as ever for support and suggestions.

    2. The Betsy-Tacy books are a treat, dare I say they are the US' answer to Anne of Green Gables; a perfect limning of a time and place that in retrospect at least, are quite magical.

    3. They've been mentioned before in the comments, and I'm glad I've finally been pushed into ordering one! (In general I don't think they were known much in the UK). I will report back...

  5. Early 20th century: the next-to-last book in the series takes place around the outbreak of WWI, when Betsy is on a tour of Europe.

    1. Thanks! I've obviously been missing out never having read any of them.


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