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review 2019-01-04 17:19
"Silent Night - Christmas Mysteries" edited by Martin Edwards
Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries - Various Authors,Martin Edwards

I used this collection of thirteen Christmas-themed Golden Age detective short stories as a sampler to help me decide which writers to read in 2019.

 

I found two authors I want to read more of. Most of the rest were entertaining but not enticing.

 

The stories I enjoyed most were both by women.

 

"The Case Is Altered" by Majory Allinghamwas my first experience of an Albert Campion story. The plot was satisfying without getting too fantastical.

 

The strength of the story came from how vividly and convincingly Allingham describes a luxurious Country House Christmas Party. I was disarmed by the regretful reluctance that Campion brings to the business of solving mysteries. It's a pleasant change from the egocentric do-you-see-how-clever-I've-been? behaviours of other amateur detectives of the period. I'll be giving the first Campion book, "The Crime At Black Dudley"a try.

 

"Waxworks" by Ethel Lina White, the story of a young reporter who hides herself away in a waxworks to get a story about whether it's haunted, worked for me because it felt fresh and energetic and still managed to generate moments of menace. The gender politics in the story are awful but I doubt that much is different today except for a litigation-reducing veneer of we-treat-our-women-well words. I'm going to try "The Wheel Spins" which Hitchcock made into "The Lady Vanishes".

 

"Cambric Tea" by Marjorie Bowen showed great skill in creating an atmosphere of menace and paranoia that was quite disturbing, even if the thinly drawn characters were a little unlikely.

 

"The Chinese Apple" by Marjorie Bowen writing as Joseph Shearing was probably the darkest story in the book. The two women in this story, both strong, neither attracted by duty, each determined to take the steps needed to distance themselves from their unpleasant childhoods, are brilliantly drawn and disturbingly credible.  I'd love to read more of Marjorie Bowen writing in this way but none of the books seem to be in print.

 

Of all the stories written by women in this collection, Dorothy L Sayers' "The Necklace Of Pearls" made the least impression on me. I found it a bit thin. Peter Wimsey struck me as bloodless and the humour, while it did make me smile, all stemmed from making fun of people's weaknesses. It didn't leave me wanting to find a Wimsey book.

 

On the whole, the stories by men were weaker than the stories by women.

 

"The Name On The Window" by Edmund Crispinis not so much a story as a logic teaser with just enough story wrapped around it to get the punchline delivered.

 

"Stuffing" by Edgar Wallace, I skimmed and then skipped. He's a writer who I have never enjoyed. I find him false. He is glossy and self-assured and has some smart ideas but I don't believe him. I see too much disdain for his own characters beneath the shiny veneer of his prose. So, I skipped him. Which doesn't mean you should. Although I would if I were you.

 

"A Problem In White" by Nicholas Whiteis a board game with archetypes rather than people and answers on a cheat sheet at the end of the book rather than in a formal denouement. This is either innovative, pre-figuring interactive media or it's the height of laziness.

 

"The Absconding Treasurer" by J. Jefferson Farjeonis competent but bloodless, uses humour that rather looks down on country folk and a detective who is a plot device rather than a person.

 

I had high hopes of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown story "The Flying Stars"but after several pages of waffling text stuffed with clichéd characters that the author seemed to hold in contempt, I no longer cared what happened to the jewels or any of the people in the story, so I abandoned it.

 

"Parlour Tricks" by Ralph Plummer is an amuse-bouche, well described by its title. A small conceit worked into a small parcel of entertainment. Nothing memorable but nothing to object to either.

 

"A Happy Solution" by Raymund Allen I skipped as it seems to have been written for chess players and so was beyond me.

 

"Beef For Christmas" by Leo Bruce raises the game a bit with a clever puzzle and a playful twist on the Holmes/Watson dynamic by having Beef, the detective, as blunt and laconic. The crime itself requires such suspension of disbelief that it would fit well in a pantomime.

 

"The Unknown Murderer" by H. C. Bailey was a welcome surprise. His Dr Fortune character rather charmed me for being not in the least bit charming. I liked his "natural man" stance and his preference for being really quite good at many things but not truly expert in anything, except perhaps seeing people clearly and acting on what he sees.

 

Standing head and shoulders over the work of the other male authors is Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Blue Carbuncle". It's a light piece of Christmas whimsey, told in an unremarkable linear manner. What sets it apart is the confident economy of the writing and the skilful presentation of Sherlock Holmes' ravenous curiosity and unassailable self-esteem. This story is as much a gem as the object it revolves around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2018-12-18 23:07
Portrait of a Murderer
Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story - Anne Meredith

The crime was instantaneous and unpremeditated, and the murderer was left staring from the weapon on the table to the dead man in the shadow of the tapestry curtains, not apprehensive, not yet afraid, but incredulous and dumb.

This is not a spoiler. This is the start of the book.

 

Unlike other murder mysteries, the book starts with the murder and even shows us who the murderer is. The suspense element in this story is based on whether the murderer gets caught in the story. 

 

In a way, this was a lot like an episode of Columbo, where we also see the solution to the murder mystery at the start of the episode, then watch Columbo drive the murder nuts with questions until they trip up in their own web of lies. 

 

Unlike in Columbo, there is no clever detective driving the murder to confession, and instead we, the readers, are fully relying on the Gray family to find out the truth. Unfortunately, most of the family are rather unlikable.

“A charming family débâcle,” Olivia agreed.

“Well, you must acknowledge this, Eustace. We do do things thoroughly; no skulking in odd corners for the Grays, once they get started.”

And yet! I really enjoyed this book. It took a while to get the story going and to get used to the characters and structure of the story, but there is something incredible thrilling in watching this train wreck and hoping that someone will slam on the brakes before an innocent person is hanged. 

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text 2018-11-26 01:08
Reading progress update: I've read 70%.
Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story - Anne Meredith

He thought, “If it’s coming to that, let me be out of the way. I can’t face it.” But at the thought of a self-inflicted death his meagre spirit recoiled. No, not that. Not that. Nor arrest either. Nor, if he could help it, suspicion or exposure. Somehow there must be a way of ensuring silence. His thoughts whirled like a wheel of fire in his distorted brain: Greta—Father—Brand—Eustace—Exposure—Bankruptcy—Shame—Failure—Obscurity—Greta… and so on, round and round.

…Up and down, up and down, while, like the wheels of a railway carriage, beating out a monotonous rhythm, his thoughts took possession of him, expressing themselves harshly, unmusically. Up and down—down and out—no way out—out and down— And so on, until someone came seeking him, and he had to mask his terror and join the community once again.

I don't know why I couldn't get into this book last year, but it just goes to show that sometimes it is just the wrong time to read a particular book. 

I'm really enjoying Meredith's writing style this time around. 

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text 2018-11-25 23:21
Reading progress update: I've read 42%.
Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story - Anne Meredith

He could no longer restrain himself; he felt the blood burn and thicken in his veins; like a man making desperate headway against a wind that deprives him of sight, breath, and speech, he could not pause to take his bearings. He must rush headlong into debate; his period of control was over. Miles, with a despairing glance at his wife, accepted the position. The instinctive loathing between these two was coming to a head; within the next few moments almost any startling occurrence might take place. A wild battle of wits—and possibly not of wits alone—would be engaged upon, whose story would be gleefully repeated in every village kitchen so long as interest in Gray’s death served the people for gossip.

Ooh, that's tension you can cut with a knife. I love how Meredith wrote this story.

Also, family love on Christmas Day. Fa-la-la-la-la-lah-lah-la-lah...

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text 2018-11-25 21:44
Reading progress update: I've read 8%.
Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story - Anne Meredith

Three days later he met Greta Hazell, and within a fortnight he had taken a handsome little flat for her in Shaftesbury Avenue—not till later did he realise that its rent was three hundred and twenty pounds a year—and was buying her whatever her fancy of the moment prompted. After some months he realised that he was by no means her only visitor to the flat. Taxed with infidelity, she laughed impudently. Did he suppose she kept all her life for his pleasure? she asked. Richard was dumbfounded. Here was something he had bought defying him. It was intolerable. He determined at once to break off the liaison and never see the wretched creature again. Then she stated her terms. They were staggering; at first Richard could not believe her. She was—in execrable taste—amusing herself at his expense. But she speedily disillusioned him. He could do nothing.

 

Ha. Serves him right.

 

I'm going to use this book for the Festive Tasks, too, but am not sure for which door, yet.

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