A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned admist the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder.
This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season – from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow, to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations. With neglected stories by John Bude and E. C. R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.
By Becky Hinshelwood
Wow, this collection of short stories is SO Christmassy! How have I never come across them before? This is the third collection of so called “winter mysteries” published by The British Library. And, gosh, they are just perfect for the season.
Now, just to clarify; by the term “Christmassy” I don’t mean Santa Claus and magic snowmen. Nor do I reference Sugar Plum Fairies and a dictatorial Mouse King. I’m not even talking about a birth in a Middle Eastern stable under a particularly bright star!
This kind of Christmassy is the kind to which you settle down next to a roaring fire, clutching a cup of warm spiced red wine. There’s darkness, murder, and a sprinkling of the supernatural. It’s a tradition that started with Victorian short stories and has evolved into popular BBC drama programming.
It’s classic crime storytelling.
As far back as the likes of Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe and even Dickens, we’ve loved a bit of gothic storytelling at Christmas time. Nowadays we look to stylish Agatha Christie adaptations and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes on the television. But this ideal anthology is taking it back to basics. And it turns out, you don’t need all the bells and whistles – these words and pages penetrated my imagination to keep me up into the wee small hours just to finish a story. And then start another…
The collection, and each individual story, benefits from a brief introduction from our curator Martin Edwards. An aficionado of the genre, Edwards is helpfully concise; these are wonderfully informative paragraphs that do not get bogged down in unnecessary detail. They add context to the stories and there is therefore no temptation to skip to the mystery!
The stories themselves were originally published between 1909 and 1965. They run in chronological order, gradually taking us through the ’30’s – indeed many of the stories are from this decade that we know as classic Agatha Christie territory.
There are surprises in here. I had no idea, for example, that Baroness Orczy’s creation ‘Lady Molly’ sat proudly amongst all the established male detective characters at the very start of the 20th Century. She’s a rather fabulous and, in hindsight, trailblazing character.
The great thing about short stories when it comes to crime is that it’s all about the plot. I have in the past admittedly struggled with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as the depth of atmospheric text is rather heavy going. Not so with the form of the short story. The requirement to focus on action whilst maintaining a mysterious atmosphere is a talent indeed. These writers have it in spades and there wasn’t a single story that didn’t grip me in some way.
That said, of course I have my favourites. I couldn’t resist the ghostly tones of Blind Man’s Hood by Carter Dickson. And, the one character from this collection who I have encountered before (on Radio 4 of course!) Paul Temple, was a wonderfully light hearted contrast. Francis Durbridge’s creation and his wife ‘Steve’ are icons of detective noir. Paul Temple’s White Christmas is the shortest of short stories and is a bit of an appendix to a previous mystery.
To keep their readers in thrall, a short crime story must have its twists. Of course this is the factor that all of these stories have in common, whether they are ghostly or intellectual. Some twists are entirely unexpected, some knowingly and shamelessly camp. None am I going to discuss since this would ruin it all!
This book is perfect to curl up with on a dark winter night, preferably with the wind howling outside! Future collections will henceforth be on my radar to make the perfect lead up to Christmas. So, British Library, please keep them coming!
If Becky’s review has inspired you to read more, then you can buy your copy HERE + free UK delivery.