For once I have managed to read a Christmas themed book in the appropriate season, as my usual track record sees me reading snowy country house mysteries in June. Today’s read is the third short story anthology by the British Library, which is set around Christmas mysteries. The other two are Silent Nights and Crimson Snow. Without further ado here is what is in store for you in this collection…
A Christmas Tragedy by Baroness Orczy
Our first story is by a founding member of the Detection Club and was first published in 1909 in Cassell’s Magazine. This tale features her serial sleuth Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, though this time she is out of the office, as it were, at a country house Christmas Eve party in Yorkshire. It is during the night that the host meets his violent end. This story certainly includes a first for me, a killer who uses a series of cattle maiming attacks to lure their victim outside. Whilst it might seem like Orczy is going to indulge in a romance subplot in the Georgette Heyer or Patricia Wentworth mould, she actually goes a different way with that part of the narrative, which I found interesting. As for the rest of the story the solution requires a little too much intuition for my liking and in terms of dogged devotion I think the narrator probably gives Watson a run for his money.
By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson
Jepson is an author I know of, but not someone I knew anything about, so it was interesting to read about his background in screenwriting, as well as his time as a special operations executive in WW2. I was also surprised to learn that a film I’ve watched, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, is actually based on Jepson’s Man Running (1948). However this story is an inverted mystery in which one man endeavours to exact his brother’s fortune and wife; being keen to make the legend ‘that a Caithness always dies by the sword,’ a reality. Of course not everything is as it seems and Jepson plays around with character type expectations. One twist I think was revealed a little too early but there are plenty of others in store for the reader, despite the slightly hurried ending.
The Christmas Card Crime by Donald Stuart
Stuart is only one of the pennames for John Robert Stuart Pringle, who also wrote under the name Gerald Verner. He had a colourful life if his newspaper publicity is to be believed, associating with cut throats, guarding dead bodies, being a pavement artist and an ice bumper, as well as being a prolific writer, managing 23 novels in 5 years. Trevor Lowe and his friend DI Shadgold are off to a Cornish village for Christmas, but this plan is put on hold when snow blocks the line. A walk to the last train station leads to the dispiriting news that there is no hotel nearby, only a pub where a man was murdered once and in the middle of the night when all the passengers are staying there, another man joins this list, clutching a torn piece of Christmas card. No footprints in the snow suggest that the culprit is from within the group, yet what does the frightened young woman have to do with it all? Stuart gives us that rare thing of an action packed and pacey short story which is also quite clever as well. The Christmas card clue is used in an effectively unusual way and the reason behind all of the violence, whilst not new, is not all that common and works well in the narrative. Christie fans may also spot a trope that she would go on to use in one of her most famous works, (and no it has nothing to do with trains!).
The Motive by Ronald Knox
The timeliness of my reading this book is especially apt for this story which was first published on this day in 1937. Knox has a famous defence lawyer tell his dinner time companions an unusual case he encountered where real life was stranger than fiction. I don’t want to give too much more information away but in this anecdote a man most unlikely to commit a murder seems to doing just that or is he? I had the impression that Knox is a dry a.k.a. dull writer, yet this is not the case at all with this short story which is full of weird and wonderful incidences, all of which are gripping, engaging and making me eager to find out what happens next. The Anthony Berkeley influence to the tale’s ending is very much the icing on the cake.
Blind Man’s Hood by Carter Dickson
This story encapsulates a lot of themes and interests that Dickson explored more extensively in his novels: a historical crime, a locked room mystery and an ending which blurs the lines between genres. Unlike the characters Muriel and Rodney Hunter, readers should expect the unexpected, when the Hunters arrive at an isolated home on a snowy day for a Christmas party. Instead of finding their host and various guests, all there is, is one woman who is keen to tell them of the time a woman died in the house many years ago… Dickson makes full use of the title, which is a very literal one and the final solution is suitably clever yet concise given the page count.
Paul Temple’s White Christmas by Francis Durbridge
Steve Temple dreams of going to Switzerland for Christmas like her friend Freda Gwenn and her wish is granted when Sir Graham Forbes of Scotland Yard wants her husband to go over and identify a man the Swizz police have arrested for counterfeiting. The usual fun and games ensue for the Temples. That said the story is only 6 pages long, so the plot is somewhat restricted.
Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare
This is a story I have read a few times before, but it has always been a firm favourite and I was interested to read that this story has not two titles as this heading suggests, but that there was also a third title for it as well: ‘The Present in the Post.’ The story unfurls from a blackmail message given via a Christmas card and I love how Hare gives his tale a delightfully dark sting in its’, well… tail, fuelled by misunderstandings and human fallibility.
A Bit of Wire-Pulling by E. C. R. Lorac
In this story we have another narrative framed by a character telling someone story, this time Inspector Lang telling his friends of the time a murder was committed in front of his eyes at a New Year’s Eve party. I think the solution to this one is perhaps given away, but that matters less given the brevity of the piece overall.
Pattern of Revenge by John Bude
This story was originally published in 1954 and unusually is set in Norway. The plot centres on a poisonous love triangle and the lengths to which one of the men will go to vanquish the other. Another short, short story but delightfully told nevertheless.
Crime at Lark Cottage by John Bingham
Bingham was a name familiar to me, but not someone whose works I have read. The details Martin Edwards picks out in his introduction for this piece were very interesting as I did not realise the connection between Bingham and John Le Carré, for instance. In this story though a woman and child face the request of John Bradley to use their telephone as he is having car trouble. Their home is an isolated one and you might be beginning to fear for them, but in fact it soon transpires that the reader becomes more suspicious of the home owners than the man, as events unfold. An enjoyable tale in which reader expectations are delightfully confounded.
‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons
This anthology closes with another inverted mystery, in which a heist goes horribly wrong. The festive elements to the crime are well used in pushing the narrative to the tale’s ironic ending.
Whilst snow and Christmas may unite all of these tales Martin has done a great job at providing readers with a wide variety of different plots and crimes. My favourites, aside from the story by Hare, were, ‘The Christmas Card Crime,’ ‘The Motive,’ ‘Blind Man’s Hood’ and ‘Crime at Lark Cottage.’ So if you are looking for some suitably festive crime reading material then your search is over with this book.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)