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.
My first experience of John Bude was The Cheltenham Square Murder (one of the earliest reviews on this blog) and while I found some aspects of the investigation interesting, I felt that it suffered from having to sustain its far-fetched premise. I did like the characterization and I appreciated the mechanics of Meredith’s investigation.
Death Makes A Prophet plays to some of the strengths I observed in that novel but, because its structure is quite different it avoids a few of the pitfalls. In fact as the crime only takes place between pages 148 and 149 around half of the book is setting the scene, establishing character relationships and some of the points of interest that will flummox Meredith later on.
The story concerns a religious cult, the Children of Osiris, that was established by Eustace Mildmann. After a few years of moderate success, Eustace suddenly found his order swelling when it received the patronage of a wealthy and eccentric aristocrat, Mrs Hagge-Smith. He soon found though that with the money came interference and increasing demands on his time. A deputy Prophet-in-Waiting, Mr. Penpeti, has been appointed and is gaining increasing influence within the order to the disgust of some Eustace-supporters. The tensions are palpable and will soon increase due to some external influences on the group and as a consequence of some decisions the characters will make.
In this climate a murder seems inevitable and yet throughout much of the first half of the novel it is not entirely clear who the victim will be as there clearly are schemes and counter-schemes taking place. Even once the crime does take place, for reasons I won’t spoil, it is not entirely clear who may have been murdered or whether a body was in fact murdered at all. Inspector Meredith has a tough case on his hands, working to disentangle the leads through diligent, thorough detection.
With the murder taking place at the midpoint of the novel, the investigation is somewhat compressed but that does not mean that the case or solutions to the smaller questions that occur along the way are simpler. In fact this case features a few particularly clever questions and puzzles for the reader and detective to consider. My favorite of these concerns some glassware found in a room and was brilliantly simple and logical but there are some other excellent candidates to pick from.
In addition to the murder mystery, the novel is laced with satirical and observational humor and some wonderfully rich characterization. Mixing comedy and murder is always risky business as personal tastes vary so much on the question of what is funny and jokes can sometimes undermine the development of a good mystery. Happily here that is not the case as the humor is in sympathy with rather than working against the development of the plot.
Much of the humor is derived from its character studies. Some, such as Mrs. Hagge-Smith, enjoy flexing their influence and using their money and power to remake the group in their image. Others, such as Eustace’s son, have been dragged into membership of the cult and take pleasure in secretly disobeying some of its tenets. These characters are well observed and will be recognizable to most readers as types, regardless of whether they have spent much time around small religious groups.
The only character who I felt was not particularly successful was Miss Minnybell, a character who we learn is instantly suspicious of Mr. Penpeti because she believe him to be the same Turkish servant who assaulted her in her youth. While she is quite a minor figure, the few appearances she does make seem to do little to advance the mystery. At the same time, she is not in the book often enough to be credible as a suspect in its second half.
This is a rare misstep though and it does at least help to flesh out the organization a little, creating a sense of life beyond the small circle of characters who will fall under suspicion. Other characters are richer, possessing secrets and while I quickly settled on the guilty party, I felt that there were some original ideas both in how the crime was committed and the circumstances that made for compelling reading even once you have worked out the solution.
I never lost interest and devoured this book in a single session. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas at play here and while not perfect, I found this to be a very satisfying read. Like Puzzle Doctor, I felt that this is manages to be funny and mysterious at the same time and I would also highly recommend it as another highlight in the British Library Crime Classics range.
I suspect that many mystery fans have a favorite range or publisher whose output they tend to be drawn to. For me it’s the British Library Crime Classics range which is published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press which reprints detective fiction from crime fiction’s Golden Age.
I have not only discovered a number of great reads through this range, I can also credit the books for causing me to go beyond Christie and Sayers and to see that crime fiction from this period is far more diverse than I had realized.
Unfortunately The Cheltenham Square Murder does not sit among the best of their output although it is quite a solid, entertaining read. It does contain a rather wonderful story hook, improbable though it is, which does at least make it quite a memorable murder even if its investigation disappoints.
The far-fetched concept of the story is that the murder victim lives in a cul-de-sac where several of the residents are all expert archers. One evening the victim is sitting in an armchair in front of a window having tea when he is killed with an arrow to the back of the head. The shot would have been an exceptionally hard one yet because so many of the residents were familiar with a bow there are a number of suspects on hand.
Meanwhile, and here we hit remarkable coincidence number two, our series sleuth (Inspector Meredith) just happens to be staying on holiday in a house on the street with a crime writer friend and he cannot resist assisting with the investigation.
In the early stages of the novel I found the investigation to be quite interesting, not least because of the unusual method of dispatch. There is a little discussion about flight trajectories and arrow types which lead to questions about precisely where the shot could have been fired from and there is a strong focus on the different suspects movements around the neighborhood.
The second half of the novel began to flag for me and I became frustrated that there were some parts of the narrative that struck me as a little flabby. For instance, there is one plot point in particular early in the story that the writer devotes a fair amount of time to that leads absolutely nowhere at all. There are other elements that are more substantive but which advance the investigation so quickly that the detective (or the reader) didn’t seem to earn the revelations that come from them.
Given that Meredith is quite a plodding sort of detective and the way the narrative slows in the final eighty pages, there is a very good chance that the reader will overtake him at points in the story and will beat him to solving the crime. Usually when I do this I feel a huge sense of accomplishment but here I felt a little underwhelmed.
There are several clues that so directly point to the identity of the suspect that the question only becomes one of how the crime was managed. While the means is at least rather clever and certainly unique, the reader comes to elements of it by default. Had the pacing of the conclusion been a little faster this may have been less apparent but I felt the solution required little ingenuity on the part of the reader – just a diligence and orderly removal of other possibilities.
If the mechanics of the investigation disappoint, the reader can at least enjoy the cast of characters that Bude creates for his story. The suspects are all quite unique and several of them have some interesting motives and behaviors that help bring them to life. Sadly, our investigator, Meredith, is much less of a personality and I found him of relatively little interest though it was interesting to see his investigation floundering at points as he hits several dead ends.
So, how did I feel about The Cheltenham Square Murder? I think it has some flashes of personality but it ends up being undone by the very unique concept that attracted me to it in the first place. When a murder requires a large amount of skill to be worked, it requires the reader to suspend a considerable amount of disbelief to accept that there might have been a broad array of suspects. As for how it is done, we have to have the means offered to us in advance so that the ending feels fair but the moment that means is introduced it stands out so much that it becomes clear that was how it was achieved.
This is a shame because there certainly were aspects of this book I enjoyed a lot and I found much of the book quite readable and entertaining. While I am open to reading some other works by Bude in the future, it will not be to spend more time with Meredith but in the hopes of seeing some other similarly creative scenarios.
Do you have a recommendation for another book in the Meredith series I might enjoy more?