A Surprise for Christmas (2020) ed. By Martin Edwards

This is the latest short story collection brought out by the British Library Crime Classics series. I was familiar with several of the stories, including the first by Catharine Louisa Pirkis’ ‘The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep’. In this story Loveday Brooke is sent to spy upon a French maid within the household of Lady Cathrow. The police believe she is part of a gang who stole £30,000 worth of jewellery from her mistress, on Christmas Eve. Brooke is not entirely convinced, and it was enjoyable to see her pulling out the rug from underneath her boss and the police.

I have reviewed the next two stories in the collection in other posts on the blog, which you can access here:

‘The Hole in the Wall’ by G. K. Chesterton

‘Death on the Air’ by Ngaio Marsh

Following on from these two tales, is Carter Dickson’s ‘Persons or Things Unknown’. This was first published in 1938 and it was interesting to see Dickson’s interest in historical mysteries beginning this early, as I always associated that more with his later work. The outer shell of the story is set contemporary to the time Dickson was writing in and it commences with a man telling the guests of his housewarming party about a mysterious killing which took place there in the 1600s. The information for this death seemingly comes from a diary and official reports. Within one small room of the house, the lights are extinguished. Under the cover of darkness, a man is hacked to death with 13 stab wounds. There were two others in the room, one of whom had an obvious motive for the killing, but there was no weapon and no additional person could have entered and left the room. The solution is pleasingly simple yet effective and Dickson builds up the characters and relationship dynamics well.

Next up is ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ by E. R. Punshon. The story opens with a man walking through the snow, whilst wearing a woman’s nightdress. He works for Colonel Bennett and it seems that he and his wife have been involved in a murderous deed, but how will things pan out for them? The ambiguous ending works well here, and I liked the understated allusions to Lady Macbeth.

A private detective is called upon for help, on Christmas Eve, in Ernest Dudley’s ‘The Christmas Eve Ghost’, by Sophie Forrest. This recently bereaved woman has seen a sinister apparition two evenings running in her hotel. Is the legendary Burmese dancer who was killed upon the property many years ago? Or is something else going on? This is quite a short story and it concludes with the detective delivering something of a fait accompli that very night.

From ghostly visitations we move to a theatrical pantomime production in ‘Dick Whittington’s Cat’ by Victor Canning.During the performance the Cat interacts a lot with the pretty woman in the dress circle. Yet suddenly he falls to the ground and a short while later the woman notices her diamond bracelet is missing. Did the Cat steal the jewellery? Or was it the woman’s male friend, who has been at three parties in the last 6 months in which expensive jewellery has gone missing? This mystery is set up well but ends rather quickly.

After that we have Cyril Hare’s ‘A Surprise for Christmas’, which is one of my favourite stories from the collection. The tale begins benignly enough – Anne and Jimmy Blenkiron are resting after Christmas lunch and their orphaned niece and nephew are preparing a special surprise for Jimmy. It all seems perfectly innocent, but the more we learn about past events, the more we keenly anticipate the moment where everything blows up in the face of one particular character. In keeping with other short stories by Hare, this story has a brilliant ending, its brilliance perhaps lying in what it leaves unsaid and unwritten.

Another story with a great ending is Margery Allingham’s ‘On Christmas Day in the Morning’. Albert Campion has been staying with Chief Constable Leo Pursuivant for Christmas and on the day itself Superintendent Pussey arrives with news of the killing of a local postman. He has been knocked over by a speeding car, driven by a drunk driver. The car and suspects have been detained. But there is a problem. It seems the postman after the accident had been able to get back on his feet and push his bicycle 300 yards. The doctor thinks this could be possible, yet what he rules out as impossible is the postman climbing a stile and delivering post to a cottage quite far away. Yet it has been checked and the occupant of the cottage received their post. With this dilemma there is a risk the police cannot proceed with their case. I am not an ardent fan of Allingham’s work, but I really liked this story with its unusual set up and the conclusion combines a good combination of poignancy and comedy.

The longest story in the collection is Anthony Gilbert’s ‘Give Me a Ring’.As in Gilbert’s novel Don’t Open the Door! (1945), we have a nurse as our protagonist. Gillian Hinde is full of her preparations for the Christmas meal she is to share with her fiancé that evening, (he’s a doctor you know!).Yet she is never destined to have that meal when a wrong turning during a dense foggy spell, brings her to the door of a junk dealer’s shop. Little does she realise the danger she has landed herself in when she decides to buy a ring from his shop. Much peril ensues for her and her fiancé and it remains to be seen if Arthur Crook can save the day in this pleasing enough thriller.

Following on from this is Julian Symons’ ‘Father Christmas Comes to Orbins’. This story was also published under the name ‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip,’ and under this title it was reprinted in the earlier British Library Crime Classic anthology: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018). I don’t think this duplication was intentional.

The final story in the collection is ‘The Turn-Again Bell’ by Barry Perowne and he was an author I was completely unfamiliar with. The tale is set on the days coming up to Christmas and sees a rector looking ahead to the marriage of his son on Boxing Day. Yet there are undercurrents of tension and animosity, as well as a sinister local legend attached to the church bells. This is not a typical mystery, though it gives a feel-good ending to the collection.

Rating: 3.75/5

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)

3 comments

  1. Persons or Things Unknown is a nice inclusion. It was included in the original edition of The Department of Queer Complaints, but was cut from the more widely available (although still hard to get your hands on) Dell edition. It’s also featured in Fell and Foul Play, which is even harder to find.

    Anyway, Carr wrote some really good historical mysteries at this point in his career. The most widely available is The Blind Man’s Hood, but there’s also the excellent The Door to Doom. The latter feels like something Carr would have written in the 1950s, and I was shocked to see that it was from the 30s. Both of these stories are well worth tracking down.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t forget “The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey”, which although it is a re-enactment of a true historical murder can be read more or less as any other historical murder mystery by Carr, and it was published in 1936.

        Not to speak of Carr’s juvenilia, published in his school paper “The Haverfordian”, much of which is historical.

        Like

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