I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.
The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.
There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!
Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.
The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.
Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.
A Christmas Tragedy by Baroness Orczy
A cantankerous retired Major is found stabbed to death outside his home in the early hours of Christmas morning with his gun a few feet from his body. The previous day he had angrily fallen out with a young man who was seeking to marry his daughter and it is that man who becomes suspected of the crime.
This story is drawn from the first collection of Orczy’s Lady Molly stories, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, and this was my first time encountering the character. I quite enjoyed the way the story is recounted by her assistant who directly addresses the reader, reminding them that they will of course have heard about some particular detail of the case in the press.
I felt that this mystery worked quite well and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had failed to identify the killer. The clues are fairly set out and there are several credible suspects. The Christmas setting ends up being a little incidental to the story though it does provide a reason for a party to have occurred on Christmas Eve. A very solid start to the collection.
By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson
The second story in the collection was a lovely festive surprise for me, being an inverted crime story! Huzzah. It was my first experience reading Jepson but I will certainly plan on seeking out more of his work.
A man who seems unable to hold down a steady job is staying with his elder brother, hoping to once again play on his sense of charity to extract a loan of several thousand pounds. He is also nursing an attraction to his brother’s much younger wife and makes a bold declaration of his interest in her one day, suggesting that she run off with him.
It is a fairly short story so I don’t want to give away exactly how the murder comes to be done but I think there are several interesting and entertaining revelations along the way. The actual detection period of the story is very brief and while quite practical and realistic, some may feel it is all rather technical. Still, it ties in nicely to a motif running through the story.
The Christmas Card Crime by Donald Stuart
The titular tale in this collection begins in a way that is a little reminiscent of Mystery in White as a train is stopped by snow on the tracks and the passengers decide to go in search of shelter. Only one of their number opts to remain on the train and when the group gets some distance from the train they hear her shout and run to find her dangling from a rope on a bridge with a mysterious assailant standing over her.
Rescuing her the group finds their way to a rather seedy inn where they settle in for the night. They wake in the middle of the night to discover one of their number lying dead of a knife wound with half of a Christmas card in his hand…
Though some aspects of the case are certainly far-fetched such as the explanation of the significance of that card, this was a thoroughly entertaining read. Stuart packs a lot of incident into his story and though it reads like an adventure-thriller, the mystery elements are solidly reasoned if you can accept some of the more outlandish details. I plan on seeking out more of Stuart’s work in the future!
The Motive by Ronald Knox
Ronald Knox may have been a standout figure in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction but he was hardly a prolific one. With six novels and just three short stories to his name it is shocking to think that I am nearly halfway through his output!
The Motive is a standalone story in which a lawyer tells some other club members about a strange case in which a man is accused twice of murder. Knox tells his story in a very entertaining fashion and I enjoyed the conceit of the story a great deal though I felt that a revelation near the end was unnecessary and worked to the story’s detriment.
Blind Man’s Hood by Carter Dickson
This was the story I was most excited to read in the collection and I think it probably suffered from those expectations. The tale features a death in impossible circumstances and some very effective horrific imagery but I found the way it was told awkward and a little hard to visualize in places.
The story begins with an author of detective fiction arriving at a house to find all of the occupants are away. When they return he learns about the death that occurred there many years earlier in which a woman died in a house with her throat cut and her body partially burned. All of the doors and windows were locked and there were only two sets of footprints in the snow.
Paul Temple’s White Christmas by Francis Durbridge
Another first time encounter for me as I have never read any of Durbridge’s Paul Temple stories before. I am not sure that this was necessarily the best introduction for the character as it is an incredibly short story to the point where if I tell you what the crime element is then I will have given away the whole story. The best description I can offer is that Paul Temple travels to Switzerland to identify a criminal.
It didn’t really work for me but I could imagine it would appeal to existing fans of the character.
Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare
A man and his wife are travelling to attend a Christmas party with his family. For the past four years he has been receiving blackmail notes in his Christmas cards and, being sure that a family member must be responsible, he is determined to find the guilty party.
The situation is a pretty clever one and I appreciated the resolution which has an Ilesian quality. One of the highlights of the collection for me!
A Bit of Wire Pulling by E. C. R. Lorac
A man demands police assistance because he has received a death threat promising that he will be killed before the New Year. That is just one day away and the Police agree, sending several undercover men with him to a dinner party. During that dinner he is shot dead through a window pane but by the time the Police get outside there is no sign of the killer, just the gun on the ground and a length of wire in the undergrowth.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the story other than the title which rather gives the whole thing away. The remainder of the story is pretty slight so once you figure out how the crime was worked there is little mystery left.
Pattern of Revenge by John Bude
A Norwegian doctor tells the story of two rivals, one of whom was imprisoned for life for the murder of a woman they each sought to marry. This is another very short story but I found it engaging. The mystery is how the crime was worked by one of those rivals to suggest the other though the reader doesn’t have much hope of working it out. Though it is perhaps not fair play, I found it an entertaining read.
Crime at Lark Cottage by John Bingham
A man arrives at Lark Cottage in need of a place to stay. The woman and her young daughter living there seem anxious but invite him in. He soon learns more about the reason for their anxiety and just who they are expecting to visit.
This is an interesting story that does a good job of building suspense and playing with the reader’s expectations of what has happened. I think the explanations are quite clever although I think one aspect of the situation proves to be a little problematic (unfortunately I can’t discuss what without spoiling the ending).
‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons
The final story in the collection is the tale of a department store heist from Julian Symons. A bookstore owner develops a plan to steal some jewels on loan to the store from a family of exiled Russian aristocrats. Symons walks us through the planning stages of the crime and then shows us how it is executed.
I absolutely loved this one. It’s a really solid crime story depicting a well-organized crime and enjoyed the game of figuring out whether they would get away with it. It is a superb way to end a short story collection that I consider to be one of the most satisfying that the British Library have released to date.
Copy provided by the publisher for review.