With this volume we're now up to the third Christmas related anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Is this a story of diminishing returns, or has Edwards found a couple of bonafide winter classics for this new book?
What is obvious from the table of contents is that most of the authors here have not been featured (much) in previous anthologies, so that should mean that we can't draw much of a conclusion just from the author list. But even though these are relative newcomers to this anthology series, there are still some heavy-hitters here. The main draw has to be John Dickson Carr, who finally gets a story selected for these anthologies, but names like Cyril Hare, Baroness Orczy, Ronald Knox and Julian Symons are nothing to sneeze at either.
Baroness Orczy - A Christmas Tragedy
Lady Molly and her companion are visiting with the disagreeable Major Ceely and his daughter Margaret over the winter holidays. One night, the major is found dead in the gardens, having received a gunshot wound in his back. As he had lately quarreled with a suitor of his daughter's, that young man is suspected of the crime.
For a story from the turn of the century (the old one), this wasn't half bad. I mean, there's not much fair play and a whole lot of melodrama and admiration of the "dear lady", and the callousness of a certain character is obvious, but the story zips along quite nicely and doesn't overstay its welcome. And there's actually a bit of a surprise in that the obvious suspect is not the guilty party!
Selwyn Jepson - By the Sword
A young-ish ne'er-do-well is staying with his benefactor cousin and his family over the Christmas. Unfortunately, not only is he skint and trying to finagle some money from his wealthy cousin, but he has also fallen for his cousin's wife. And when he is denied a loan, he takes the fateful decision to get rid of the person standing between him and a fortune (and a woman).
Yeah, we've seen this plot before... Lots and lots of times. This really is the first plot you'll think of when someone mentions the words "inverted mystery". There's not all that much to distinguish it from other stories of its ilk, either. The only thing that differentiates these stories from each other is what in the end leads to the miscreant being apprehended, and I can't say that that bit excited me much either. So a bit of a dud, to be honest.
Donald Stuart - The Christmas Card Crime
Trevor Lowe, a famous dramatist (and our detective) is travelling with some companions on the train towards Cornwall, but when the train gets stuck in the snow the passengers decide to wander along the track to an inn to spend the night there. But along the way a fellow passenger, a young woman, is attacked and nearly hanged from a bridge, and when they reach the inn, she vanishes during the night and another passenger is found killed.
I thought this had a pretty exciting set-up and enjoyed the beginning quite a bit. But unfortunately it soon descends into silliness and melodrama, and unfortunately Stuart leaves a couple of huge plot holes unexplained when he tries to tie everything up at the end. (For example, how on earth could the party of passengers fail to notice that one of them was missing while the female passenger was attacked?) I was sorry to see that the promising beginning was not realised by what followed.
Ronald Knox - The Motive
A famous lawyer relates the tale of a case that somewhat stumped him. A man first made an attempt at another man's life by tricking him into swimming blindfolded in a pool and slowly letting out the water so he couldn't climb out again. And then some time later the same man is accused of having killed a fellow train passenger who vanished completely during the night.
This was much more like it. I like Knox's humour, and though I can't say that this is his best story, it still grabbed my attention. I'm sure I've read it before somewhere, but I didn't remember much about it, which perhaps doesn't sound like ringing endorsement, but as I said, this appealed to me quite a bit.
Carter Dickson - Blind Man's Hood
Already discussed in this post.
Francis Durbridge - Paul Temple's White Christmas
Paul Temple is given an assignment in Switzerland to identify a criminal who's being held there.
This is a short short, so the description will necessarily also have to be short. It's not much of a story, and there's not much detection available either. But it is quite short and gets in and out before the reader has had time to register his disappointment...
Cyril Hare - Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech
A young man is being blackmailed by someone in his adopted family, and he is now quite certain that he's identified who it is.
Bleh, I really don't like this type of stories. Nasty people doing nasty things to each other. Yuck. If I remember correctly, Hare's short stories were often of this type, unlike his novels which are generally much better.
E. C. R. Lorac - A Bit of Wire-Pulling
An old industrialist has been receiving threatening letters, and requests the company of a police officer during the New Year's celebrations when he's visiting with his daugher and son-in-law. During the night's festivities, the son-in-law sees someone through the window, and the industrialist is shot. But the culprit manages to get away, with tracks in the snow being the only traces left behind.
Kind of an impossible story, and it could have been so much better. Unfortunately, it's dead easy to see through the villain's plot. It really doesn't bode well when the reader can foresee the solution to each unexplained phenomenon as soon as they are presented. In the hands of a more experienced impossible mystery writer, I think this could have been an outstanding story, because there's a lot to recommend it otherwise. I definitely liked reading it, it was just a disappointment to see that Lorac didn't once manage to offer any surprising resolutions.
John Bude - Pattern of Revenge
Two men are rivals for a woman's affections, and then one day she is found killed in her cottage. The tracks leading to the crime scene look like those of a man with a wooden leg, and of course one of the rivals has just that.
Well, I thought the explanation for how the tracks were obfuscated - if you didn't realise from the description that they would be, well, then I'm sorry - was pretty good, but that doesn't really rescue this story from mediocrity.
John Bingham - Crime at Lark Cottage
A man arrives at the titular cottage, where a woman and young girl are living. It is soon obvious that the woman is very fearful of something, and rather quickly the visiting man begins to reason out why.
From the outset, there are really only two explanations that are possible, and it doesn't take long before it's obvious which one it will be. The surprises are fairly well telegraphed in advance as well. Not a particularly strong story.
Julian Symons - 'Twixt the Cup and the Lip
The bookseller Mr. Payne is leading a double life where he is also a robber. In this case he is out to rob a department store of some Russian jewels that are on display there. He recruits a gang of helpers to carry out his plan...
This is a typical Symons story of a crime, where we follow along more or less in real time, but fortunately, this is from early in his career, before he turned to psychological crime stories and that kind of drek. So this actually managed to hold my interest for the main part of the story. The final twist is quite amusing, though it may be the most obvious example of the "Chekhov's Gun" trope I've come across in a while.
Well, obviously there are quite a lot of stories with winter settings - though in some of the cases here, that particular setting isn't a huge part of the story - and Edwards has managed to ferret out a couple of worthy ones here. The obvious highlight is the Carr story, but that is available elsewhere in better collections. But Knox and to some extent Orczy and Lorac also bring the goods.
There's also nothing that is horribly bad here. There's just a couple of disappointments or stories where the plot didn't appeal much to me - as usual!
1. Miraculous Mysteries - no surprise there, this is an
impossible crime anthology, so it has lots of things going for it that
elevate it above all the other collections.
2. Silent Nights
- the quality of the collections from here on is
fairly uniform, but I think this one just manages to go to the top. A
good variety of stories and a few really good ones.
3. Blood on the Tracks - a collection with few standouts and some truly bewildering inclusions, but on the whole it was still a worthwhile read.
4. The Long Arm of the Law
- starts off spottily, but gets better and better, and even though it
finishes with one of the worst stories I've ever read it's still distinctly
5. Serpents in Eden - the very definition of average with two highlights and no real disappointments.
6. The Christmas Card Crime - even more average than the previous anthology, with just one highlight and a couple of disappointments as well.
7. Crimson Snow - a rough start and ending to this anthology belies
the fact that it collects a solid bunch of stories, perhaps only marred
by the fact that there is no true highlight here.
8. Continental Crimes - a disappointing read on the whole where the great stories are few and far between.
Resorting to Murder - there's a bunch of easily forgotten stuff here.
But also one awesome story that means that it manages to avoid being
10. Murder at the Manor - I was thoroughly
disappointed that this didn't feature any true country house mysteries. I
think there was one fair play mystery among the whole bunch of stories.
The Puzzle Doctor seems to have enjoyed this collection quite a bit over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Kate had many good words for it over at CrossexaminingCrime. And of course inverted mystery fan Aidan over at Mysteries Ahoy liked all the stories I had a hard time with...