Reviewed by Harriet
Christmas is a mysterious, as well as magical, time of year. Strange things can happen, and this helps to explain the hallowed tradition of telling ghost stories around the fireside as the year draws to a close. Christmas tales of crime and detection have a similar appeal. When television becomes tiresome, and party games pall, the prospect of curling up in the warm with a good mystery is enticing.
So writes Martin Edwards in the introduction to this volume of Christmas stories. Last year, British Library Crime Classics scored an amazing hit with J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White [reviewed here], which became a runaway bestseller in the period before Christmas. Can Silent Nights reach the same dizzy heights? Who knows. But I can tell you that it will give a lot of pleasure to many fans of Golden Age crime fiction.
This is a collection of fifteen short stories with a Christmas setting or theme, ranging in date from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. So we start, as with the two previous short story collections, with Conan Doyle, and end with Leo Bruce, who died in 1979. On the way we pass through some names that are very well known indeed – G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Edmund Crispin among others. And we also encounter writers who are less celebrated today, but whose stories are absolute crackers.
Obviously the choice here was dictated by the need to address Christmas in one way or another. Needless to say the authors do this in different ways. Sherlock Holmes and Watson embark on an adventure ‘upon the second morning after Christmas’; Ralph Plummer’s Eric Glover performs parlour tricks for the guests of a small private hotel, rather gloomily snowed up over the holiday; Christmas is spent in stately homes in stories by Ralph Allen, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, and Leo Bruce; and trains feature in the stories of Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham, and Joseph Shearing. Elsewhere we have an intrepid girl reporter spending Christmas Eve in a waxwork museum (Ethel Lina White), a Home Office pathologist in an orphanage (H.C.Bailey) and a Boxing Day locked-room mystery set among the dons of North Oxford (Edmund Crispin).
But what of the crimes themselves? After all, murder, poisoning and theft occur all the year round. Does the Christmas setting add more than just the icing on the cake, if you’ll forgive the seasonal metaphor? Well yes, I’d argue that in most cases it does. The disappearance of a young woman’s valuable pearl necklace is discovered during a game of that perennial Christmas favourite game, Dumb Crambo, in Sayers’ ‘The Necklace of Pearls’, for example, and a huge Christmas dinner followed by a high-class private show provide the cover for a cunningly plotted murder in ‘Beef for Christmas’ by Leo Bruce. And, of course, the holiday season is responsible for bringing under one roof groups of disparate people, among whom there are guaranteed to be some who dislike or fear each other intensely.
I could go on. But instead I’ll single out a few stories that I particularly liked. I’ve praised Ethel Lina White in a review of an earlier collection in this series [here], and here we have her again, in great form, in ‘Waxworks’, an excitingly creepy story in which a young woman ends up spending the night in a closed waxwork museum – she thinks she’s alone, but then one of the waxworks moves… Excellent, lively, nail-biting stuff. White starting writing crime fiction in her late 50s, and among other things produced the novel that ended up as Hitchcock’s celebrated film The Lady Vanishes.
Another forgotten writer has two stories featured here, each published under a different name. As Marjorie Bowen, she was responsible for ‘Cambric Tea’. This concerns a beverage I’d never heard of, but which proves to be a sort of pretend tea made from hot water, milk and sugar – an innocent-sounding drink but one which, in the story, contains far from innocent poison. Her second story, written as Joseph Shearing, is actually my favourite in the collection. This is ‘The Chinese Apple’, a tremendously atmospheric tale of an aging expatriate woman unwillingly returning to London to meet the young daughter of her recently deceased sister.
It really would be, Isabel Crosland reflected, a flat sort of Christmas. She wished she could shift her responsibility and, as the four-wheeled cab took her along the dingy streets, she wondered if it might not be possible to evade taking Lucy back to Italy. London was oppressive. The gutters were full of dirty snow, overhead was a yellow fog.
The gloomy atmosphere increases when she reaches her childhood home in Islington, which brings back unhappy memories of a disagreeable childhood. Worse, she discovers that a murder has just taken place in a house on the other side of the road. And when she meets Lucy, the girl is very different from her imaginings, and Mrs Crosland feels increasing disturbed by her, despite her apparent kindness. Gothic meets crime here, to great effect.
If a collection of crime stories, complete with a great selection of unusual crimes and eccentric detectives isn’t enough to tempt you, the volume also has a couple of puzzles for you to work out by yourself, or with a group of friends round a blazing Christmassy fire. In ‘A Happy Solution’ by Raymund Allen, a chess game is central to the plot, and it’s up to you to solve the problem of the endgame. And in ‘A Problem in White’ by Nicholas Blake (actually the poet C. Day Lewis), the story ends with a cliffhanger: But who did the Inspector arrest for the murder of the disagreeable Arthur J. Kilmington? And why?
Clues are scattered through the story, and the whole thing is explained in an appendix at the end of the volume, as is the chess problem. Of course I cheated and skipped to the end to see how it all worked out, but you might have some fun trying to do it yourself.
Plenty to enjoy here, then, and a perfect choice for a Christmas present for a vintage crime loving friend or relative.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Martin Edwards, ed., Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (British Library, 2015). 978-0712356107, 287pp., paperback original.
BUY Silent Nights from the Book Depository.