2019-01-16

Silent Nights (ed. Martin Edwards)

"Silent Nights" is the first of - so far - three Christmas/winter mystery anthologies by Martin Edwards in the British Library Crime Classics series. In general, all of the anthologies in the BLCC series have a very similar structure. Almost entirely by British authors, ordered more or less chronologically, some big names mixed with some more unknown quantities. In this particular volume, the former are represented by such authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, while people like Ralph Plummer, Marjorie Bowen and Joseph Shearing were less known to me beforehand.

As most will agree, anthologies are almost by design a mixed blessing. How much the reader will enjoy depends on what direction the editor has chosen when selecting the stories. My own opinion is that I like anthologies to be assembled around a plotting theme (impossible crimes, cozies, fair play mysteries, spy thrillers, adventures, etc.), because then you will have a certain inkling what the stories will contain. And also be able to give a pass to those collections that feature genres of less interest...

I get more wary when the anthologies are not, because then anything can be featured. I mean, just the presence of snow in a story is no indication that I will enjoy reading it (lex "The Mystery in White"). This wariness is somewhat mitigated when I know that the editor is a seasoned one and can be relied upon to bring in at least a couple of really good stories, no matter what. And as this is the case with Martin Edwards' work, I go into the reading of these anthologies with a certain optimistic mindset. Was that justified in this case? Well, read on...


Arthur Conan Doyle - The Blue Carbuncle

This is probably as safe a start to a Christmas mystery anthology as you can get. It is one of Doyle's more famous Sherlock Holmes stories wherein he is investigating how a valuable gem ended up inside a goose that was left behind in the street after an altercation.

My own opinion is that the Holmes stories aren't generally the best mysteries, but they are great stories. This is a wonderful read and does at least feature some investigation, though it all whizzes by a bit too quickly for the reader to be allowed to sleuth along.

Ralph Plummer - Parlour Tricks

This is a tale where several people are forced to spend Christmas indoors at an inn because there has been a robbery and no one is allowed out, and they amuse themselves with conjuring tricks and so on.

The most obscure tale in this collection, it's also quite fun. I must say, however, that there are indications that show why it seems the author never continued his writing career, because there are several things that are never told in the story, but later turn out to have a large importance to the final revelations. For example, we never actually get to know why everyone is forced to stay inside the whole time until our detective tells us who the criminal is. And also, during the first trick where one of the guests is blindfolded and led around the room until he finds a hidden object, we are never actually told what he is supposed to be looking for... But still, a fun read, and with some editing this could have been a good impossible crime story.

Raymund Allen - A Happy Solution

Kenneth Dale has come to visit Lord Churt at the latter's country house, where his fiancée Norah has been staying. He has brought along a letter from Norah, and when he opens it a thousand pound note falls out of the envelope. Everyone assumes Norah stole it, but Kenneth with some logical reasoning finds the true culprit.

A good knowledge of chess will help the reader who wants to solve the mystery, but this is a clever tale and one of the highlights of the collection. My main complaint is that it was very hard to divine the relation of Dale's fiancée Norah to the owners of the country house.

G. K. Chesterton - The Flying Stars

Flambeau tells us the tale of his final crime, wherein he managed to steal the "Flying Stars", a set of three diamonds, during a matinée performed at a country house.

There are just a bit too many things that go unexplained until the final Father Brown explanation of the whole thing, but otherwise, this is one of Chesterton's better stories. It's just not a perfect mystery.

Edgar Wallace - Stuffing

A bit of a trifle where several criminals are all out to steal money from Lord Carfane.

To call this a mystery is a misnomer. However, it's still a fun story to read, as all the coincidences pile up and everything - well, almost - turns out all right in the end.

H. C. Bailey - The Unknown Murderer

Bailey's detective Reggie Fortune often handles cases involving children, and this is yet another one of them. A female doctor is found with her throat cut and later on the suspicion falls on a Captain Warnham, who was a guest in the house at the time, and who has a step-son who falls very ill...

Bailey's stories involving children are often quite powerful, and this is not bad at all. The villain of the story is quite diabolical. I do think it's fairly obvious to spot the baddie, but Fortune is a nice acquaintance in the short story format, though his mannerisms make him less tolerable in larger measures.

J. Jefferson Farjeon - The Absconding Treasurer

As the title intimates, the treasurer of the Slate Club has vanished, and with him a large sum of money. But when detective Crook begins investigating, he finds that there may be more to the story than appears...

Compared with Farjeon's novel "The Mystery in White", this is more of a regular mystery. It's pleasant enough, but I think most seasoned mystery readers will see through the plot fairly quickly.

Dorothy L. Sayers - The Necklace of Pearls

Lord Peter Wimsey is guesting at Sir Septimus Shale's Christmas celebrations, and while they are enjoying the regular parlour games, the latter's daughter notices her pearl necklace missing. Lord Peter is asked to investigate so police won't have to be invited and cause a scandal.

Interestingly, this is in fact an impossible crime, though no one seems to have noted it as such. And it's quite a pleasant one to boot. I won't say that it'll cause any great "aha" moments, but Sayers weaves a robust plot around the disappearance, and it's certainly one of the better tales of this collection. I will probably include this in my own collection of impossible crime stories.

Margery Allingham - The Case is Altered

Another country house mystery, this time it's Albert Campion who is invited to spend the Christmas holidays Sir Philip Cookham's place. There are some shenanigans with government papers that go missing and several young foolish people doing their young foolish things.

That description may look a bit condescending (well, a lot condescending), but I actually enjoyed this story a whole deal. It's not much of a mystery, and if there had only been one or two more pratfalls this wouldn't have been out of place in a P. G. Wodehouse collection. But I enjoy Wodehouse, and as long as the reader doesn't go into this story with high expectations I'm sure they will enjoy it.

Ethel Lina White - Waxworks

A young female journalist has decided to take it upon herself to sit in a waxworks over the night because lately two people have died there while spending the night.

This story belongs to the suspense genre, which is one of my least favourite mystery sub-genres. It's effectively written and a reader who enjoys this type of tale will almost certainly find it a highlight, but I was quite bored with the whole thing.

Marjorie Bowen - Cambric Tea

A doctor is called to a bedridden old man who tells him he is certain that his wife is trying to poison him. Things get more complicated when it turns out that the doctor and the wife were well acquainted in younger years...

Another story that is hardly a mystery. It's quite reminiscent of some of Agatha Christie's early romantic short stories. And not particularly interesting to me.

Joseph Shearing - The Chinese Apple

A middle-aged woman has returned to London from Italy to take custody of her niece, since her sister recently died. They meet in a house where it's reputed that strange things have been happening.

Shearing was another penname for the author of the previous story, Marjorie Bowen, which makes the placement of this story a bit bewildering. It also doesn't help that again it's hardly a mystery at all, which is further compounded by it being dull as dishwater, making it three stories in a row that bring the momentum of the anthology to a screeching halt.

Nicholas Blake - A Problem in White

A train has got stuck in the snow and the people of one compartment start discussing among themselves how to best bring about a train robbery, as you do. One of them feels insulted and decides to move to a different compartment. And some time later he turns up dead...

Well, after those three duds, it's rather wonderful to arrive at this story, which is a definite highlight of this anthology. This is a proper mystery, fairly clued and all, and ends on a challenge to the reader. Top stuff from Blake.

Edmund Crispin - The Name on the Window

Previously discussed in this post.

Leo Bruce - Beef for Christmas

Beef and his narrator Lionel Townsend are invited to a - you guessed it - country house, where an old man has been receiving anonymous letters. Since he is known for spending his money lavishly, something his heirs resent, there is some cause for alarm. And then death strikes among the guests...

I really should start reading more from Bruce. This is a very good little mystery, almost an impossible crime in its simplicity. There's just one misdirection here, and if the reader sees through that, they should spot the culprit fairly easily, though. Still, a very good read, ending this collection on three high notes in a row.

Conclusion

This anthology confirms what I said above in the introduction - if it isn't curated around a specific plotting genre, it tends to be very uneven in what it offers. The main problem comes by placing the White, Bowen, Shearing stories next to each other, because they are quite similar and belong to the same sub-genre. By breaking them up, people who like me who are thoroughly bored by these kinds of stories wouldn't lose steam so completely in the third quarter of the book.

But on the whole this must be called a good anthology, because apart from those three stories I had some good fun here. And there are definitely quite a few great tales here. And the best ones are placed at the very end, which leaves an extra good impression on this reader.

If you're looking for other opinions on this anthology, Kate was very complimentary on her blog crossexamingcrime. Read more here.

Meanwhile, over on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, the Puzzle Doctor had some reservations but still recommended it.

And on A Perfect Locked Room the Dark One was quite impressed with the whole thing.

2019-01-09

Small Crime: Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

I'm going to be branching out ever so slightly by discussing young adult mystery novels here on the blog. They may not be short, but they are quite sweet!

This is a genre that is fairly overlooked in the blogosphere with mainly my good friend J. J. over on The Invisible Event returning to his wonderful Minor Felonies posts with some irregularity. (To be honest, TomCat has also been discussing this genre - mainly in the form of the classic Three Investigators series).

It may not be the most attention-drawing type of literature, and like comics, there is probably a mental block in many adults who dismiss this as "something for the kids". Which of course in a way it is. But there is lots of good work being done in the genre, and it's always a pleasure when you can point out gems, no matter what genre you've found that diamond in.

For my first post on this subject, I am going to write about the fifth novel in the ongoing A Murder Most Unladylike series, written by Robin Stevens, which is called "Mistletoe and Murder".


As you may recall, the estimable J. J. and I discussed the previous novel in the series ("Jolly Foul Play") on his site just the other month. If not, click here to read up on that discussion. There, we theorised that Stevens is approaching each instalment in the ongoing series as a way to implement and feature a particular trope of Golden Age Mystery fiction. I'm glad to say that this theory holds water with this fifth novel.

Because, as you can probably infer from the title, this is a Christmas mystery. But not only that - it is also a university/college mystery, set as it is in Cambridge in the mid 1930s. Hazel Wong, our narrator, and her best friend Daisy Wells (also the president of the Detective Society) have been invited to celebrate Christmas with Daisy's brother Bertie, who is studying in Cambridge.

Stevens gets a lot of mileage out of this setting - most of the action takes place in the fictional Maudlin college where Bertie lives, along with several mates. There's the twin brothers Donald and Chummy Melling, their on and off friend Alfred Cheng, and also their history don, Michael Butler.

We're also allowed to mingle with various other Cambridge residents, for example Daisy's great-aunt Eustacia Mountfichet and female student Amanda Price. But most of all, Daisy and Hazel get a chance to finally meet - and match wits with - their rival detective society The Junior Pinkertons, George Mukherjee and Alexander Arcady.

In fact, when Daisy and Hazel first come to Cambridge, we find out that Donald - who in just a few days will inherit a large fortune - has been very accident prone. It is generally assumed that most of these accidents are just that, accidents. Even though his brother Chummy - who is one of those awful people that for some reason authors try to convince their readership that the other characters enjoy the company of - is known for being a prankster.

However, both the Detective Society and the Junior Pinkertons smell something fishy, and they decide to enter a wager to see who can get to the bottom of the whole thing first. Unfortunately, the very next night Chummy is found dead, having fallen down a flight of stairs because he tripped over a fishing line that had been set at the top of the stairs.

So now instead our rivalling detectives have a real crime to investigate! Which just a day later becomes two crimes...


I'm happy to report that this is a clear improvement on the previous book in the series, which was a breezy read but had some serious problems in its handling of the mystery, where the final culprit seemed to be rather pulled out of a hat. We have a tiny whiff of that here as well, but in this case Stevens manages to eliminate suspects one by one by having her detectives investigate clues and talk to the persons involved. The main problem here is that the suspects that are eliminated are the bit players, and we're left with just the two main suspects.

And since everyone except Hazel suspect one of those suspects over the other, this kinda means that all us savvy readers will know that it's person no. 2 who is the bad guy. But at least Stevens then provides a couple of clues that point definitely to the killer.

The denouement is handled fairly well - there's some real excitement in the final action sequence. We get explanations for why other characters acted suspiciously, and they also fit with the overall story. So, all in all, this was a very pleasant read, and I'd probably rank this as no. 2 or 3 in the series. (Best is "First Class Murder", and this one is tied with "Arsenic for Tea".)

As this is written in the 2010s, there's quite a lot of pages devoted to things that matter to a modern audience. Hazel's point of view is quite interesting, seeing that she is an outsider in the English society - both because she's female and because she's from Hong Kong. In this novel she also gets to appreciate that other people have the same outsider position - Bertie's fellow student Alfred Cheng, for example, who like Hazel is from Hong Kong, not to mention George Mukherjee and his Indian heritage. Some of Hazel's and George's conversations (and perhaps even more what is NOT being said!) are quite poignant, and as a non-Englishman myself (though still a "Westerner") who is rather nonplussed by some of the quintessentially English behavioural traits I find a lot of things to agree with.

You may also recall from the discussion of the previous novel on The Invisible Event that I argued that Daisy Wells might well be on the autistic spectrum. I feel quite vindicated in that belief by her characterisation here. It's quite clear that she operates on a different level than most other people - though she is quite delighted (and challenged!) by meeting George Mukherjee, a young man with fairly similar characteristics.

If you're looking for a modern mystery with clear GA influences and are willing to dip your toe in the Young Adult genre, I don't think you can find many better books to read than these ones. I recommend it wholeheartedly. There is certainly some continuity between the novels in the series, and none of them are bad reads, so if you can see yourself commit to the series, then by all means read them in order. But otherwise, this works perfectly fine as a standalone novel.

And by the way, my copy contains a short story featuring two of Hazel's and Daisy's classmates on their own Christmas adventure. But this story is also included in the collection "Cream Buns and Crime", so it's a bit superfluous here...