"There is, at Christmas, a spirit of goodwill. It is, as you say, "the thing to do." Old quarrels are patched up, those who have disagreed consent to agree once more, even if it is only temporarily."- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Murder for Christmas, 1938)
Back in May, I reviewed Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015), edited by Martin Edwards, who is known as an award-winning crime novelist, genre-historian and the author of The Golden Age of Murder (2015), but now Edwards is building a reputation as the resident anthologist of the British Library Crime Classics – compiling a rapidly growing number of themed mystery anthologies for them.
Thus far, the stack includes Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (2015), Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries (2016) and Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes (2016), but potentially the best collection of short stories is still in the pipeline: Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017). But that anthology won't be released for another six or seven months. So, for the moment, I will have to make do with what has already been published, which brings us to the subject of today's blog-post.
Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (2016) is an offering of "vintage crime stories set in winter" and a sequel, of sorts, to Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (2015), which became "one of the UK's fastest-selling crime anthologies" and this lead to the commission of a second compendium of wintry tales – as there's "no denying that the supposed season of goodwill" is "a time of year that lends itself to detective fiction." Edwards succeeded in cobbling together a collection of rare, interesting and often excellent detective stories breathing the spirit of Yuletide. Let's take these stories down from the top.
Fergus Hume's "The Ghost’s Touch," culled from the pages of The Dancer in Red (1906), acts as this collection's curtain-raiser and some aspects of the plot anticipates John Dickson Carr's other famous radio-play, "The Devil’s Saint," which has several versions – two of them I discussed here and here. Hume's story is narrated by Dr. Lascelles, who relates the terrible Christmas of 1893, when he accompanied a friend, Percy Ringan, to his ancestral home. Percy's father accumulated wealth as a gold prospector in Australia, but his poorer cousin, Frank, inherited the family title and estate. So their relationship is both familial and mutually beneficial.
Frank invited both of them to spend Christmas at the Ringan estate, Ringshaw Grange, which resembles "the labyrinth of Daedalus" and has a cursed chamber, the Blue Room, haunted by the ghost of Lady Joan – who reputedly touches occupants of the room "who were foredoomed to death." As to be expected, one of the cousins decide to sleep in the Blue Room, but Dr. Lascelles intervenes in their plans and effectively demonstrates the mortality of the accursed ghost of the room. Not really a rug puller of a detective story, but a good, solid example from "The Room That Kills" category (i.e. a ghost story with a logical explanation).
The second story comes from "The King Kong of the Thriller," Edgar Wallace, whose predilection for lurid sensationalism and hoary dramatics has a repellent effect on me, but the few short stories I read seem to contradict his reputation as a writer of dated melodrama – which is certainly true for "The Chopham Affair."
Originally, the story was published in one of Wallace's own collections, The Woman from the East (1934), and can be described as a crime story with a twist: one of the main characters of the tale is an old-fashioned rogue, "Alphonse or Alphonso Riebiera," who passes himself off as a Spaniard, but has a passport from one of those shady South American republics. Riebiera eked out a living as a blackmailer of women of rich husbands and turned this in "a well-organized business," but one day, the husband of one of his victims accidentally receives a blackmail note. As a result, the husband decides (as Sherlock Holmes would call it) to extract some private revenge. However, this result in an unusual and hard to explain situation: the blackmailer is found in the snow, shot through the head, alongside the body of a car thief. How this situation came about is the twist in the tail of the story. I liked it and should try one of his full-length novels in the not so distant future.
Margery Allingham's "The Man with the Sack" was first published as "The Case of the Man with the Sack" in a 1936 issue of the illustrious Strand Magazine, which plays a familiar tune on the theme of stolen jewels during a Christmas house party. Reluctantly, Mr. Albert Campion accepts Lady Turrett's invitation to come to Pharaoh's Court on Christmas Eve, because she fears one of her guests, Ada Welkin, is in danger of being relieved from her valuables. Campion is, however, unable to prevent the place from being burglarized, but promptly identifies the guilty person and finds the place where this person stowed away the loot. It's not one of the most original short stories in this anthology, but good and competent enough for what it is.
S.C. Roberts was a renowned publisher and a distinguished Sherlockian, who once played a round of golf with Conan Doyle, which was enough to brag about as a fanboy, but Roberts also wrote and published several pastiches – one of those stories, "The Case of the Megatherium Thefts," is apparently very good. However, the Sherlockian pastiche that's collected here is a short stage-play, "Christmas Eve," in which a problem is brought to Holmes and Watson by Miss Violet de Vinne. She acted as a secretary to Lady Barton, "the owner of a very wonderful pearl necklace," but the pearls have gone missing. Holmes immediately sees there’s a second story hidden beneath her account and cleverly ferrets the truth out of her.
The resolution of the case tore a page from "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), which also happened to be a Christmas-time story about a lost gemstone. As a matter of fact, I think that story may very well be the arch-type of these festive tales about stolen and/or lost stones.
One of the main reasons for jumping on this anthology is the next novella-length story: Victor Gunn's "Death in December," originally published in Ironsides Sees Red (1948), which is an impossible crime tale set in a snowbound castle during Christmas – solved by a wonderful character in the mold of Sir Henry Merrivale, Andy Dalziel and Arthur Bryant.
Chief Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell, or simply "Old Iron," is a grumpy character who is dragged by his highborn subordinate, Johnny Lister, to the ancestral seat of his family. A place as dark and gloomy as the past, named Cloon Castle, perched on the top of desolate mountain in the Peak District. So "Old Iron" had enough material to grumble for the entire length of the journey, but, upon their arrival, the holiday is slowly turning into a busman's holiday for the two. On the driveway of the castle, they saw "an extraordinary figure," garbed in a dark cloak, stumbling across a snowy field and vanish, but the figure failed to leave any footprints in his wake. And this would not be the only apparently supernatural event at the castle.
Cloon Castle has one of those haunted rooms, known as the Death Room, but the head of family, General Lister, refuses to tell the back-story of the room to his guests. However, this fails to dampen the enthusiasm of the house party and one of them ends up sleeping in the haunted room. As is pointed out in the story, these experiments usually end with the house party finding "the occupant of the haunted room stretched out cold and stark on the floor," but this time around the events take a different turn: a blood-spattered corpse appears inside the room in the middle of the night. But when everyone goes back to check, the body has vanished and not a trace of blood is found on the floor! This cannot be tagged as a locked room, but how the bloodstains vanished can be marked as an impossible situation.
The subsequent investigation by "Old Iron" was quite fun, which lead from the Death Room to "a cold, gloomy, family crypt" and back to his bedroom where a nasty surprise was waiting, but I have a bone to pick about the impossible situation regarding the footprints. I do not believe the trick would leave behind a spotless field of unbroken snow and it would be very easy to make a slipup in its execution, which would ruin the whole effect. All in all, I liked this novella and have written Victor Gunn down as a person of interest for the near future.
Christopher Bush's "Murder at Christmas" was first published in 1951, in The Illustrated London News, under the title "The Holly Bears a Berry," which features his series-character, Ludovic Travers, who is spending Christmas-weekend as the house guest of the Chief Constable of Worbury – which is usually a quiet, peaceful place. However, one of the neighboring inhabitants is a rather notorious characters and an ex-convict, named John Block Brewse, who was "the last of the line of financial swindlers." So hardly surprising when someone strangles him to death in the nearby woods and Travers solves the case by smashing the murderer's alibi to pieces, but I always wonder if these alibi-tricks work when you have to manually strangle the victim. Otherwise, a fairly good short-short detective story.
The next entry in this anthology is also a fairly short-short story, but one that quickly became a favorite of mine, "Off the Tiles" by Ianthe Jerrold, who also authored the magnificent Dead Man's Quarry (1930) and the splendid There May Be Danger (1948). Jerrold has undergone a personal renaissance, after all four of her mystery novels were reissued by the Dean Street Press, which were supplemented during the 1950s with a handful of short detective stories in The London Mystery Magazine.
This one is a great showcase of her talent as a writer, as well as a demonstration of her cleverness, as Inspector James Quy investigates the deadly fall of a woman from a roof onto the street below. Was it an accident or a cleverly contrived murder? The plot that Quy uncovers is fairly original and one that could be considered both a success as well as an abject failure. So I really hope all of Jerrold's short stories gets gathered in a single volume. I would love to read more from her.
Macdonald Hastings' "Mr. Cork's Secret" was printed in the December, 1952 issue of the monthly magazine of Lilliput magazine, which was offered as a Christmas competition and promised a reward of 150 pounds to everyone who could deduce the titular secret. The solution and winners were announced several months later. Interestingly, Edwards posted the answer to the secret at the end of the book. So you can try and challenge yourself. Plot-wise, this twist in the tail turned this fairly ordinary crime story into one of the best and most original Christmas stories about stolen jewelry. A genuinely clever piece that involves bloodied corpse in a hotel room, several famous thespians, a newspaper reporter and a well-mannered burglar. A very fun and eventually clever story.
Unfortunately, I did not care all that much for the next pair of stories, Julian Symons' "The Santa Claus Club" and Michael Gilbert "Deep and Crisp and Even," which is convenient excuse to skip them and not further bloat this blog-post.
Finally, the last entry, Josephine Bell's "The Carol Singers," was first published in Murder Under the Mistletoe (1992) and the story ends this collection on a fairly dark, grim and sad note – even for a collection of detective stories about bloody murder and thievery. Old Mrs. Fairlands occupies the ground floor flat of a converted Victorian family home, which once housed her entirely family and a domestic staff, but this became untenable by the late 1940s. So the house was converted and the floors rented out as apartments. The reader is also told how old age is catching up with the poor woman, who needs a solid hour to get dressed and sometimes too tired to make supper, which leaves her faint and thirsty, but the worst is yet to come.
Circumstances lead her to be all alone in the large house on Christmas, which provided an opportunity to a small group of home-invaders, pretending to be carol singers, to overtake Mrs. Fairlands. She was tied to a chair and gagged. And there she was left and eventually take her last, labored breathe after being completely "exhausted by pain, hunger and cold." It's even sadder when you realize the carol singers who did this were children! However, the ending showed Bell was not willing to plunge the reader in an all-encompassing darkness and provided a cop-out ending, but it remains a well-written, powerful and chilling story. In particular the part up until her death.
So, all in all, Crimson Snow is a nicely balanced collection of holiday-themed detective-and thriller stories, which managed to avoid all of the usual suspects and consists almost entirely of rarely anthologized short stories – even a couple of genuine rarities. And that's always a plus for these kind of short story collections. I really enjoyed breezing through all of these stories and will have to take a look at some of these other collections. I just hope I haven't breezed through this review too fast. By the end, it was basically just banging on the keyboard.
Well, that's it for this blog-post and I'll try to lay-off the Christmas/wintry mysteries for now, because last year it actually burned me out.