Reviewed by Harriet
The British Library Crime Classics editions started a successful trend in 2014 with their publication of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White, which became a runaway best-seller. Last Christmas we had Silent Nights, a collection of seasonal short stories, and this year’s contribution is another anthology, Crimson Snow. Although in general I’m not a huge lover of short stories, I always look forward to these collections, and I thought this one was particularly good.
There are some famous names here – Edgar Wallace, Margery Allingham, Michael Gilbert – and it’s always a pleasure to meet them again, but equally so to encounter writers you’ve never heard of. One notable absentee is Conan Doyle, who has I think been represented in all the previous BL short story anthologies. But never fear – you still get your quota of Holmes and Watson in a short and highly entertaining play by S.C. [Sir Sidney Castle] Roberts, a very celebrated publisher and academic and a ‘distinguished Sherlockian’ who wrote many parodies and pastiches about the great detective. Taking place on Christmas Eve, the plot concerns an attractive young woman to whom Watson takes a great fancy, and the theft of some valuable pearls.
Disguise is a popular device in detective fiction, and what better disguise than a Santa Claus costume. This features importantly in Margery Allingham’s story, The Man with the Sack, where her detective Campion is at a Christmas house-party and where the thief makes imaginative use of the costume and the sack. Then there’s Julian Symons’ The Santa Claus Club, which features a rather sinister group of men who get together every year and eat a grand dinner, all of them dressed as Father Christmas.
Lovers of vintage crime stories will probably be familiar with the work of Ianthe Jerrold, whose novels have recently been reprinted by Dean Street Press. Her story, Off the Tiles, concerns an elderly woman who has fallen to her death from the roof of her Chelsea house. Admittedly she had the habit of calling on her neighbour by walking along the gutter from one house to another, but this time it seems someone gave her a push. Another woman writer, Josephine Bell, was unknown to me at least, but her story, The Carol Singers, makes a fittingly entertaining if slightly bizarre end to the volume. Carol singers also appear in Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even, in which Detective Sergeant Petrella is fooled by a case of mistaken identity.
If you enjoy a test of your own detective abilities, you’ll find one here in Macdonald Hastings’ story, Mr Cork’s Secret. The plot concerns the disappearance of a massively valuable necklace, intended as a wedding gift to a beautiful young film star from her intended, the rather sleazy Anton de Raun. The crime itself is successfully solved by Montague Cork, ‘one of the most respected and wealthy men in the City of London,’ and an expert in insurance fraud. However, one important aspect of the case is left as a loose end, and the original readers were invited to enter a competition to provide the answer. In the present volume, you can have a go yourself, and then turn to the end where Hastings’ own solution, plus those of two winning readers, appear.
At 50 pages, Mr Cork’s Secret is one of the longer stories in the collection, and longer still, at over 70, is Victor Gunn’s Death in December. But I enjoyed every minute of it – it was probably my favourite in the collection.
‘Christmas Eve, now, and sundry log fires awaiting us’ said Johnny gaily as he turned the Alvis’s long nose into the lane. ‘Ironsides, old sourpuss, we’re going to have the time of our lives. No routine – no murders – no crooks. Nothing but jollity and laughter’.
Needless to say he could scarcely be more wrong. Johnny, a young detective, is bringing his boss Cromwell (known as Ironsides) for a Christmas break at his father’s ancestral castle. Cromwell hates parties, hates Christmas, and is generally a gloomy sort of chap. Not sure why he agreed to come along, really, but maybe he needs a break. In the event, he won’t get one, as a nasty murder takes place and, as the castle is completely snowed in, he has to deal with it unaided.
I’d never heard of Victor Gunn, though apparently he was a ‘mass producer’ of popular fiction, and prided himself that he’d never earned money by anything but writing. He seems to have written several novels featuring Cromwell, and if this story is anything to go by, they would be well worth reprinting. The writing is extremely lively, the plot ingenious but just about believable (there are ghosts and haunted rooms, drugging and disguises and more besides), and Cromwell is a character I’d love to hear more about.
As usual this volume has been edited with an introduction by Martin Edwards, and I’m happy to report that each story now has its own full introduction including in many cases the details of original publication, something I’ve missed in previous anthologies. A perfect Christmas present for any lovers of vintage crime.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Martin Edwards, ed., Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356657, 318pp., paperback original.
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