This isn’t late. It’s actually very early.
For years now, the British Library has been republishing older mysteries and helping to fuel a public interest in this esteemed genre and its history. Martin Edwards has been consulting them in this, and has edited a number of short story collections. This is one of them. Silent Nights is a collection of Christmas mysteries by a variety of authors from the Golden Age. Now, I’ve reviewed anthologies before and they tend to be pretty hit or miss, since you have a bunch of separate stories linked by a vague theme and little else. Thankfully, this one is actually good.
We kick off with “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle, a requirement in any Christmas mystery anthology. Blah blah man’s dinner is stolen, blah blah there’s a jewel in it, you know how this goes. Reading over it, it’s pretty slight; Holmes knows most of what happened from early on, it’s just a matter of tracking down where the goose came from, and he and Watson stumble into the thief by accident. It's more notable for the ending, which plays with an idea you see a lot of in mystery fiction but with a pure pragmatic humanitarian motive rather than sympathy.
Next up is the little known “Parlor Tricks” by Ralph Plummer. From the intro I assumed it would be a locked room story, but it’s not, really. It's about a magician and his audience as they try and challenge him, so more of an expose of magic tricks with a twist at the end. It’s simple and well-done, not much more to say (although I doubt at least one of the explanations).
Raymond Allen’s “A Happy Solution” is just that, the most Christmassy story in the collection. A young woman finds herself accused of trying to swipe some money and pass it off in a love letter, and the usual coincidences make it look bad for her. Luckily, the rat responsible is obvious, but he claims he was watching a chess game, which apparently was so engrossing that no one would notice him getting up and walking away. He was able to give an account of the game, but could he have deduced what happened?
Obviously, yes. This is one of those “reverse chess” problems (where you have a position and have to figure out how it ended up that way) and while I’m sure it’s very interesting to those who like chess, it didn’t do much for me.
Next up is G.K. Chesterton's “The Flying Stars.” This one takes its sweet time getting to the crime, with both it and the resolution happening one after the other. But the build-up to the inevitable theft of the titular stars by the thief Flambeau is easy and well-done, and there’s even an excellent theological and moral point made that doesn’t feel forced or shoehorned, always a risk with these types of stories. Is it fair? I’m not sure. Is the reveal of what you just witnessed fun? Very much so. Must check more of these stories out.
Edgar Wallace's “Stuffing” is more or less “The Blue Carbuncle,” just with stupider names. Seriously, where did he come up with half of them? It moves quickly and has some good description, but was the main disappointment of this collection.
Next up is an anticipated one, H.C. Bailey's “The Unknown Murderer.” This is actually oddly grim for a Christmas story. It opens happily with Reggie Fortune (reluctantly and with much griping) being dragged to a charity event for orphans, but things get dark when a doctor has her throat slashed during the event. And then a child is poisoned….
I’m not sure what I think. On the one hand, it flowed well, there was tension, etc. Yet I’m not sure. Reggie pulls together a connection between events not because the facts point to it, but because this is a mystery so they have to be connected. Nick Fuller claims it’s fairly clued, you just aren't walked step-by-step through the logic.I believe him, but I think I’m still iffy on Mr. Fortune.
J. Jefferson Farjeon, the man who started this British Library crime craze with Mystery in White, is up next with “The Absconding Treasure” in which the creatively named Detective Crook investigates theft done by an apparently loyal toyshop employee. The man is found murdered in the woods, and the identity of the killer is no great shock. A nice, simple story.
Dorothy L. Sayers comes next with “The Necklace of Pearls” which goes down at the estate of a traditional man who likes playing traditional games, but someone took advantage of the fun to swipe his daughter’s pearl necklace. And to make matters more interesting, it can’t be found on the guests or on the grounds. Yes, it’s an impossible theft!
Well, a minor one, but I appreciate it. The answer to where the pearls are hidden is good, and I think Sayers could have clued it a bit more and been fine. The whodunit element is weak, there are too many suspects for a story this short, and Whimsey doesn’t even figure out who was responsible via some genius detection, but just setting up a trap. But it’s still good, on the whole.
Next up is another reread, Margery Allingham’s “The Case is Altered.” Albert Campion is invited to a large Christmas party, but is distracted when his womanizing friend Lance thinks he’s got a letter asking for a meeting from that cute girl in the train on the way in. Even Campion can’t deny that she looked afraid, but why Lance? And why does she want to meet with him?
Like “The Flying Stars,” this one takes some time before getting to any crime, but unlike that story which made clear what was going to happen early, this one takes a tad too long to get to the point. I read this story once already in another Christmas mystery collection and didn’t care much for it, and while this re-read improved my opinion a bit it’s still a tad too slow, and with an obvious culprit. Even Campion admits that the first real clue only comes about five pages from the end! I’ll acknowledge that the reason for the note is clever, however.
Next up is more of a suspense story. “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White stars a reporter who decides to write an piece about the power of superstition and fear by spending the night in the titular waxworks, where two people have already been found dead. This can in no way go wrong, especially with a possibly murderous coworker lurking in the wings…
Not mystery, but suspense. I freely admit I read this story in a crowded restaurant which may have killed some of the atmosphere, but it was still a good, suspenseful story that didn’t go the way I thought it would, which is always a pleasant surprise. Good story, on the whole.
Next up is Marjorie Bowen’s “Cambric Tea.” Like before, this is more suspense than mystery, as a doctor is called in to the house of a minor lord who’s convinced his wife is poisoning him with her tea. The problem? Said wife was the doctor’s fiancee way back when, so even if she’s responsible (which he isn’t sure of) he may not know what to do about it…
This is actually a pretty good Gothic, with good tension throughout. Where it falls short is in pacing; the plot behind the scenes is revealed too early, and while there is still some mystery about the identity of who’s giving the poison, it becomes too obvious. The resolution also falls a bit flat, being resolved not through the ingenuity of the protagonists, but because a character has a change of heart when he has given no indication that he would have one. But I enjoyed it.
Next up is Joseph Shearing...better known as Marjorie Bowen. Yes, she’s back, this time with “The Chinese Apple.” By all appearances, this is more of a somber story, as a woman makes the painful trek back to her childhood home to pick up her niece. This sparks a rather emotional and honest conversation between the two women, and while this an interesting and tense in its own way, it reveals the game too early. I think that once that element comes in, the reader can see what’s coming. But the ending twist remains good, nonetheless.
We get back into mystery with a good three-story send-off. The first is Nicholas Blake’s “A Problem in White.” The set-up is almost mockingly classic: A snowbound train filled with total strangers--or are they?-- sit around griping and clashing, and when one rebellious soul decides to just walk away he’s found suffocated in the snow. And it’s all very fair too, to the point that the end of the collection details the solution with labeled clues. Which is to the story’s benefit and detriment.
On the one hand, the clues aren't generic, simple things; you do have to read the story and actually pay attention to events and make inferences if you want to solve it, but it is possible to just stumble on something that you know is a clue and solve the whole thing because it only points to one person. I would know because that’s how I solved it. Admittedly not the whole thing, because there are more twists than just whodunit, but it’s an irritating short-circuit.
Next up is Edmund Crispin’s “The Name on the Window.” I read “Beware of the Trains” a while back and while it didn’t suit me for one reason or another, this was much better, combining the dying message with the impossible crime!
The victim this time is an architect who takes a bet to spend some time in the pavilion on his estate, rumored to be haunted by ghosts, because of course it is. He’s barely in there a few minutes when the alarm bell rings, promoting the guests to head out there, where they discover him lying the floor with a stiletto in his back! Unlike most victims of murder, he was kind enough to scrawl the name of his killer, an ex-Luftwaffe man his daughter is in love with, on a dust-covered window. He’s even nice enough to confirm that yes, he wrote it and yes he meant it before dying. But the issue that brings Inspector Humbleby to Fen is the fact that the floor was coated in dust, and only the victim’s footprints were there!
Needless to say it doesn’t take Fen long to see through the illusion, chiding Humbleby (and the reader!) that he has “Locked rooms on the brain.” The solution is simple and elegant, and the twist behind the dying message well-handled. The only issue is that the motive is only spelled out on the last page, but unlike “The Necklace of Pearls,” the suspect list is short enough so that it doesn’t matter.
The collection wraps up with Leo Bruce’s “Beef for Christmas,” which left me wanting more of a taste of these stories. Beef, a private detective, is invited to the home of a rich man who’s been receiving threatening letters. It seems that like most Golden Age patriarchs, he’s threatening to leave his children with no money, but it’s not because he’s a spendthrift; he’s a major spender who might blow through all of his wealth long before his family can even get a taste of it. It’s a cruel form of torment, and it’s no surprise that a couple of days after the arrival of Beef and his Watson that someone is found hanging in an upstairs room, an apparent suicide.
It’s not, as Beef quickly demonstrates. He also quickly brings the crime home to a cruel killer, and shows Bruce’s skill at cluing in the process. Multiple parts of the story combine to bring the story to a close in a way that reminded me of the best Hoch stores and I loved every moment of it. Only a slight lack of fair-play keeps it down, but it inspired me to seek out more of these.
All in all, this is an excellent little collection of winter murders. They don’t all show their authors at the top of their game, but there are only a few clunkers and many excellent brainteasers. Recommended.