Having mentioned last week that I can struggle to enjoy short mystery fiction, was I asking for trouble by picking up one of the British Library Crime Classics compilations? Perhaps, though given one of the most iconic Christmas mystery stories is barely twenty pages long I think this is exactly the sort of thing I need to be reading.
This collection is edited by Martin Edwards and comprises eleven stories. One of those stories, Mr. Cork’s Secret, is split within the book to mirror how it was originally published – with the mystery published inviting readers to send in solutions and the answer following some time later.
There is a short introductory essay and then each story is prefaced with a brief biographical note about the writer placing that work in context. This is not only useful background for the work, it also gave me a few suggestions for other books that may be of interest by some of the contributing authors.
Overall, I felt that the standard of story in this collection was very high and it begins on a high note with Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch. This is an entertaining story which is narrated by a Doctor who has been invited to a country home to stay for Christmas. The owner of the house has also invited his Australian cousin to visit and regales them with the story of how the Blue Room became haunted and how those who stay there and wake up marked with a red touch die shortly afterwards. The reader will naturally wonder if events will repeat themselves?
Admittedly the solution to Hume’s story will be fairly obvious but I felt that this was a great example of how a simple idea, told well can be very effective.
The second story, Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair, was my least favorite of the collection. It involves a blackmailer being discovered dead in a car next to a car thief. Fortunately it is followed by Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack which sees Mr. Campion interrupting a rather unusual crime during a Christmas party. It all makes for a fun adventure.
S. C. Roberts’ Christmas Eve immediately stands out as it is formatted as a stage play. The piece is a rather fun Holmes pastiche in which a woman comes to see Holmes to assist in the recovery of her employer’s stolen necklace. While the crime is not the most ingenious, I enjoyed it and felt it was quite entertaining.
Victor Gunn’s Death in December was one of the two stories I enjoyed most in this collection. Once again we have a story that echoes the traditional Christmas ghost story when a young man locks himself in a supposedly haunted room and sees a dead body that vanishes when the other guests at the house come to see what has terrified him.
Gunn packs a lot of incident into his story, making this feel like one of the more substantial stories in the collection. Once again, the solution to what is going on may not surprise but I enjoyed the two investigators, particularly the gruff Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.
Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas investigates the murder of a financial swindler in a small village. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome which I appreciated but I wasn’t wowed by the solution. I might suggest though that this reflects that it simply isn’t as good as the stories around it, rather than actually being disappointing.
Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold features a suspicious death when a woman falls while walking along the guttering between houses. We are told that this is perfectly safe in normal circumstances and the victim’s sister insists that this is no accident. I wasn’t enormously drawn in by the premise for this one but I liked its resolution quite a bit.
Mr. Cork’s Secret by MacDonald Hastings was my other favorite story in this collection. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this story was intentionally split in two to accommodate a competition that its publisher ran with a cash prize being offered to a lucky reader who could guess the answer to a question at the end.
That answer is not all that difficult to come by as the reader can stay ahead of the character in the sleuth role. I felt the story was appealing though with some entertaining characters, particularly the hotel manager and Mr. Cork himself.
The Santa Claus Club by Julian Symons is a very short story featuring a murder taking place at a charity dinner party. The victim had been warned to expect an attack but initially it is far from clear how they could have been killed. While it embraces the Christmas theme more effectively than some of the other stories in the collection, the mystery is one of those ones where the reader has little they can deduce while the action isn’t exciting enough to make for an effective adventure.
Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even felt more successful although it arguably feels a little pointless. The story, which once again feels very short, involves a group of carollers arriving at a house and realizing after they left that there was something strange about their visit. That realization is really pretty good but the story doesn’t follow through at all, making you wonder why you bothered.
The final story in the collection, Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers, is a very depressing and, for me, upsetting story about an elderly woman who is alone for the holidays being assaulted and killed in her home during Christmas. That sequence is all rather brutal but quite effective. The foray into social realism turns out to be quite brief however as an aspect of the solution to what took place, while logical, struck me as both ridiculous and out of keeping with what had come before it. Overall I’d file this one away as intriguing but flawed.
As a collection I felt this was really quite entertaining and I appreciated the good mix of stories. While not all of them could be called completely successful, almost all are at least interesting and I found a few authors whose work I am keen to explore further.