This novella by Victor Gunn (one of several pseudonyms of Edwy Searles Brooks) also forms the centerpiece of the second British Library Christmas mystery short fiction anthologies edited by Martin Edwards that I read this month (Crimson Snow), but I listened to it in the audio version narrated by Gordon Griffin, who is fast becoming one of my favorite narrators of classic / Golden Age British mysteries.
The story concerns a Christmas visit to Cloon Castle in Derbyshire, the home of Johnny Lister, sergeant to Chief Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell, Gunn's gruffly iconic series detective. And the two policemen haven't even arrived ante portas yet when they're running into their first mysterious appearance: a figure that seems to be walking in the snow at some distance; without, however, leaving so much as a single footprint. When they are assembled around the fireplace after dinner with the other guests, the afternoon's strange encounter is duly followed by the legend of the castle ghost and by a visit to the "ghost chamber", but things take a serious turn when one of the guests engages to spend the night in the "ghost chamber" to disprove the legend once and for all, only to be found injured and of obviously disturbed mind hours later -- and when not long thereafter, a stranger's corpse is found in one of the graves in the family crypt abutting the "ghost chamber." The solution, when ultimately revealed by "Ironsides", is very much down to earth and rather ugly, but there's plenty of derring-do to be had along the way, including a rather fiendish attempt on the Chief Inspector's life and much fine detection work (and enjoyable writing).
Since Johnny Lister's father, the host of this story's countryside Christmas gathering, is a retired general who has duly earned himself a DSO (I'm assuming in WWI -- the story was first published in the early 1940s, but it sounds like the general's retirement isn't a recent one, and retiring in the midst of WWII doesn't sound likely to begin with), I'm using this as my Veterans' Day / Armistice Day read in the context of the 16 Festive Tasks.
Of all of my Christmas reads this year to date, I can't think of a more fitting candidate for the Christmas holiday book bonus joker. This is a nicely plotted Golden Age country house holiday party mystery, with decidedly more likeable than non-likeable characters, a light enough touch to make the non-likeable characters gentle satires rather than gratingly annoying or rough-hewn bores, all the Christmas feels (which are maintained until the very end), decent enough writing ... and, I mean, seriously, can you beat that title? Call me sentimental, but I did enjoy this enormously.
P.S.: As an aside, I also truly enjoyed the narration by Gordon Griffin, one of the audiobook narrators of the very first hour ... and in case you didn't know, also the guy whose voice tells you to "Mind The Gap" when you're travelling on the London Underground.
This is such a fantastic biography that I suspect it will become my gold standard. It’s a dual biography of two well-known female intellectuals (who were also mother and daughter), Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. All I knew of either woman before reading this was her most famous book, but as it turns out they both lived fascinating – and, because they were writers, well-documented – lives. Both traveled internationally (Wollstonecraft even lived in France in the midst of its revolution), wrote extensively, and had children outside of marriage, and all this in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
This isn’t only a factual account; it brings both protagonists to life in alternating chapters (because Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Shelley, the two barely intersect), with distinct, complex and vivid personalities. And Gordon is an excellent storyteller, rendering their lives in a readable style more compelling than many novels; the end of a chapter would often leave me wanting to read just one more. The book is rich in information about the times, providing the context of these women’s lives and the lives of those around them, but despite being a history, the facts never feel inevitable; this is quite an achievement, requiring fresh and vivid storytelling. For the first 100 pages I was concerned that it would be a downer, featuring women oppressed by their gender and culture at every turn, but both women soon grow up and take control of their destinies. In the end, my only concern is that, while the book includes extensive endnotes and a bibliography, the author usually only cites a source when directly quoting someone; I wanted to know where more of the assertions about people’s feelings, in particular, came from.
Overall, this is an excellent book, and it left me curious to read both of these writers and see how my analysis of their works compares to the author’s. This would be a great choice for anyone interested in the lives of historical women; for those who don't typically read biographies, it's a perfect place to start.