The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics)

Here is another collection of short stories from the Golden Age of Murder edited by Martin Edwards: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories.

Christmas Card Crime

Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library|1 October 2019|Print length 240 pages|e-book |Review copy|4*

There are eleven stories all set during the Christmas season in this collection and an introduction by Martin Edwards. In it he points out the differences between a short story and a novel. It’s not just the length, but it is also the fact that in a short story there is little space to develop the characters in depth or for lengthy descriptions, so ‘every word must be made to earn its keep‘. He has also prefaced each story with a biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me.

The mysteries range in date of publication from 1909 up to 1965. I’ve read stories by some of the authors before, such as Baroness Orczy, John Dixon Carr, Ronald Knox, E C R Lorac, John Bude and Julian Symons, but others were new to me. The ones I enjoyed the most are:

The Motive  Ronald Knox. This story first appeared in The London Illustrated News in November 1937 and is about an attempted murder in a smart hotel on the English Riviera, by a character named ‘Westmacott’ (a pen name used by Agatha Christie).. On Christmas Day after a party the guests decided to play a version of ‘blind man’s buff’ in the swimming pool, which didn’t go as planned.

Another version of ‘blind man’s buff‘, this time called ‘blind man’s bluff‘, is played in the next story also with disastrous consequences.

Blind Man’s Hood by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson. This first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Sketch in 1937 and is a story inspired by the unsolved Peasonhall murder case of 1902. It is a strange tale about a young couple arriving to spend Christmas with friends, only to find the house empty – except that is for a young woman carrying a white bag, who tells them about a game of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ that went very wrong, years ago. It’s a variation on a locked room mystery, with a touch of the supernatural.

Crime at Lark Cottage by John Bingham – this first appeared in the 1954 Christmas Number of The London Illustrated News. Bingham was the 7th Earl of Clanmorris, a journalist who was recruited into MI5, where he worked with David Cornwell, who later wrote spy novels under the name of John Le Carré. This story and the next are my two favourites in the book. It is the story of an escaped convict and an isolated country cottage occupied by a young woman and her little daughter one snowy Christmas. Very atmospheric and tense with an unexpected ending. I’d like to read more of John Bingham’s work.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – this first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in January 1965). Longer than the other stories in this collection it is the tale of Mr Rossiter Payne, a meticulous bookseller who plans a perfect robbery – to steal the jewels, that had once belonged to the Russian royal family, on display in a London department store at Christmas. But Mr Payne had made an uncharacteristic error …

Overall, I enjoyed reading this collection, with a mix of excellent short stories and some that I thought  were too short and had disappointing or predictable endings.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics)

I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of short stories, often finding them disappointing. So I’m glad to say that I enjoyed this anthology edited by Martin Edwards: Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries. Some stories, of course, are better than others.

Blood on the tracks

There are fifteen railway themed stories in the collection and an introduction on classic railway mysteries by Martin Edwards. He has also prefaced each story with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me. I read the collection slowly over a few months, which I find is the best way to approach a short story collection.

Train travel provides several scenarios for a mystery – the restriction of space on trains, with or without a corridor, means that there are a limited number of suspects and they can also provide an ideal place for a ‘locked room’ crime or an ‘impossible crime’ story. This collection also includes a couple of crimes with a supernatural element.

The mysteries are presented in roughly chronological order from 1898 up to  the 1950s. The ones I enjoyed the most are by R Austin Freeman, Roy Vickers, Dorothy L Sayers, F Tennyson Jesse and Freeman Crofts Willis.

  1. The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle featuring an un-named sleuth, ‘a well-known criminal investigator’, about a man shot through his heart on the London to Manchester train. He had no ticket on him but had six valuable gold watches in his possession. This was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1898.
  2. The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L T Meade and Robert Eustace. This was also first published in 1898 in which a signalman is found dead at the mouth of the tunnel. When another man dies in in the same place it looks as though something very strange is the cause of their deaths.
  3. How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin. In this story Lady Detective Dora Myrl investigates the theft of £5,000 in gold and notes from a locked railway carriage.
  4. The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway (1901) by Baroness Orczy, featuring the Old Man in the Corner, an ‘armchair detective’ as he sits in a teashop and tells journalist Polly Burton the solution to the murder of a young woman on the Underground, whilst he fiddles with a piece of string.
  5. The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L Whitechurch featuring the railway detective Thorpe Hazell. He investigates the kidnapping of the son of a millionaire.
  6. The Case of Oscar Brodski by R Austin Freeman, an ‘inverted’ detective story, in which the reader knows everything, whereas the detective knows nothing and it all hinges on the significance of trivial details, including fragments of glass, biscuit crumbs, a piece of string and threads of fabric.
  7. The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers – an underground mystery about switching off the station lamps after the last train had gone down the line, with a rather spooky supernatural ending.
  8. The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah, in a steam engine crashes into a light train, killing twenty seven people and injuring forty plus. The cause of the accident is a mix up with the signals. I think this is one of the less successful stories for me.
  9. The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face (1928) by Dorothy L Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey story), . The body of a man is found on a lonely beach, his face slashed, and with no means of identification. Wimsey’s discussion of the crime with his fellow passengers as they travel into London, helps D I Winterbottom to solve the mystery – a most intriguing story.
  10. The Railway Carriage by F Tennyson Jesse (1931) – this is possibly my favourite story in the collection. It’s a supernatural mystery in which Solange Fontaine, a female sleuth with a ‘feeling for evil’ features meets two passengers on a train. Both the elderly woman, dressed in shabby black and the insignificant-looking man in a grey felt hat seem to be locked in their own thoughts and she feels very ill at ease. Then the train crashes. An excellent story.
  11. Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper (1933), the creator of ‘Bulldog’ Drummond – an example of an ‘impossible crime’ in which the clue of a raw egg supplies the solution to the murder – I wasn’t convinced by this story.
  12. The Level Crossing by Freeman Crofts Willis ( 1933) in which a man is found dead, lying near an unmanned railway crossing. A mystery that shows the effects of unforeseen circumstances even on a well planned murder.
  13. The Adventure of the First-class Carriage by Ronald Knox (1947) a Sherlock Holmes pastiche with an ‘impossible crime’ scenario.
  14. Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes, a John Appleby mystery in which he investigates a murder in a railway carriage on trestles, not on wheels, as it is part of a film set.
  15. The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert (1950s). I found this rather confusing as the police follow a woman passing on stolen goods as she uses the Underground to give them the slip. I think this is possibly the one story in the collection that failed to hold my interest.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press (3 July 2018) in association with the British Library
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1464209693
  • ISBN-13: 978-1464209697
  • My rating: 3*

Library Loans

Here are some of my current library books

Lib bks July 2019

  • Dolly by Susan Hill, sub-titled ‘A Ghost Story’, a novella set in the Fens where two young cousins, Leonora and Edward spend a summer at Iyot Lock, a large decaying house, with their ageing aunt.  I’ll be writing more about this book soon.
  • Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear, a Maisie Dobbs novel. This is no. 12 in the series (I’m not reading them in order). This one is set in 1938 when Molly travels into the heart of Nazi Germany.
  • The Trip to Jerusalem: an Elizabethan Mystery by Edward Marston, the 3rd book in the Nicholas Bracewell series about a troupe of players travelling England – not  to Jerusalem but to an ancient inn called The Trip to Jerusalem – whilst the Black Plague rages.
  • The Last Dance and other stories by Victoria Hislop. Ten stories set in Greece, described on the book cover as ‘bittersweet tales of love and loyalty, of separation and reconciliation’. I’ve recently enjoyed reading her latest book, Those Who Are Loved, also set in Greece, so my eye was drawn to this book.

The library van used to visit here once a fortnight, but now it only comes once a month. I hope it continues coming, but I fear that its days are numbered, so I make sure I use it whilst I still can.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Blurb:

Immortalised by Audrey Hepburn’s sparkling performance in the 1961 film of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Truman Capote’s timeless portrait of tragicomic cultural icon Holly Golightly, published in Penguin Modern Classics.

It’s New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany’s. And nice girls don’t, except, of course, for Holly Golightly: glittering socialite traveller, generally upwards, sometimes sideways and once in a while – down. Pursued by to Salvatore ‘Sally’ Tomato, the Mafia sugar-daddy doing life in Sing Sing and ‘Rusty’ Trawler, the blue-chinned, cuff-shooting millionaire man about women about town, Holly is a fragile eyeful of tawny hair and turned-up nose, a heart-breaker, a perplexer, a traveller, a tease. She is irrepressibly ‘top banana in the shock department’, and one of the shining flowers of American fiction.

My thoughts:

I’ve never seen the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a high-priced escort looking for a rich man to marry, but I understand that it’s only loosely based on the novella and is set in the 1960s rather than the 1940s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a quick read and very entertaining. The narrator is not named, although Holly Golightly calls him ‘Fred’ after her brother. He’s a writer and at the beginning of the book he is reminiscing about Holly with Joe Bell, who ran a bar around the corner on Lexington Avenue. They hadn’t seen or heard from Holly  for over two years. She used to live in the apartment below Fred’s in a brownstone in the East Seventies in New York. Her past is almost as unknown as her present whereabouts.

She’s a free spirit, charming and carefree, but craves attention. She has a cat, plays the guitar and likes to live as though she’s about to leave – all her belongings still in suitcases and crates – and has a great many friends who she entertains with numerous parties. She gets the ‘mean reds’, days when she’s afraid, expecting something bad is going to happen, but she doesn’t know what. On days like that she gets in a taxi and goes to Tiffany’s which calms her down and where nothing bad could happen to her, but not for the diamonds. She doesn’t ‘give a hoot’ about diamonds and thinks it’s ‘tacky to wear them before you’re forty’.

Her life is a mass of contradictions, one character describes her as a ‘phony,’ but a ‘real phony’ with crazy ideas and always on the move. She’s involved with a Mafia gangster, Sally Tomato, who she visits in jail every Thursday. But her life is really a mystery and not all is as it appears on the surface, longing for something wonderful to happen.

There’s a lot packed into this novella of 100 pages. There are also three short stories at the end of the book in the remaining pages – and these are a delight. I think these are among the best short stories that I’ve read!

There’s House of Flowers about a young woman called Ottilie, who makes the best of her life, first as a prostitute and then as the wife of Royal, a young man who takes her to live in a house in the mountains, a house of flowers with wisteria on the roof, vines over the windows and lilies blooming at the door. But all is not as idyllic as it seems in this beautiful and exotic setting.

A Diamond Guitar is set in a prison farm, a story of unrequited love when a new prisoner arrives bringing with him a guitar studded with glass diamonds. The third story is maybe my favourite, A Christmas Memory, about a young boy, Buddy and his cousin who is sixty or so years older than him. It’s a heart-warming story with a poignant ending.

I loved Capote’s writing – it’s lively, richly descriptive with sparkling dialogue, and his ability to conjure up characters with depth in a few paragraphs is impressive, to say the least.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (27 April 2000) – originally published in 1958
  • Source: Library Book
  • My Rating: 5*

Challenges: The Virtual Mount TBR Challenge

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Arsonist to The Ashes of London

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

This month the chain begins with The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, a book I haven’t read. In fact, it isn’t to be published in the UK until May 2019. It’s non fiction about the scorching February day in 2009 that became known as Black Saturday, when a man lit two fires in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.  It is also the story of fire in Australia, and of a community that owed its existence to that very element.

My chain begins by using the word ‘Saturday‘ as the link. It’s Saturday by Ian McEwan which follows one day in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne as his life takes an unexpected turn of events. A minor car accident brings him into confrontation with Baxter, a man on the edge of violence.

Also following the life of one person in one day is Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, in which Clarissa Dalloway is preoccupied with the last-minute details of party she is to give that evening. Elsewhere in London, Septimus Smith is suffering from shell-shock and on the brink of madness. Mrs Dalloway first appeared in Virginia Woolf’s short story, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street published in The Dial magazine in 1923.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie was also published in 1923, her second book featuring Hercule Poirot. She had the idea for the book after reading newspaper reports of a murder in France, in which masked men had broken into a house, killed the owner and left his wife bound and gagged. From these facts she then invented her plot, setting the book in the fictional French town of Merlinville next to a golf course and overlooking the sea.

SaturdayMrs DallowayThe Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot, #2)The Chalk Circle ManTitus GroanThe Ashes of London (Marwood and Lovett, #1)

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas is also set in France, her first book featuring Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris and increasingly bizarre objects are found within them, including the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut. Like Poirot, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a detective who works on intuition.

Vargas’s books are full of eccentric characters as is Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, the first of his Gormenghast books.  It begins with the birth of Titus, soon to be the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. His father, Lord Sepulchrave has endured despair and then madness after his beloved library was burnt down and Steerpike, a disrespectful youth, has clawed his way out of the castle’s kitchen to a position of some power, by manipulation and deceit.

This brings me full circle to a book about fire, or rather the aftermath of a fire in The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor as people set about rebuilding London after the Great Fire had reduced a large part of it to ashes and rubble. Interwoven with a murder mystery, and the hunt for the regicides responsible for the execution of Charles I, it brings home the reality of being homeless – a refugee in your own country. I could hear the noise of the fire, smell the smoke and almost feel the heat and the pain of the victims of the fire.

So, the last link in my chain takes it back to the start of the chain, but to the results of a fire started by accident rather than arson. This month my chain has travelled from Australia to the United Kingdom, via France and the fantasy world of Gormenghast, connected by names, dates of publication, settings and eccentric characters.

Next month (April 6, 2019), the chain will begin with Ali Smith’s award-winning novel, How to be Both.

Six Degrees of Separation: from Fight Club to The Word is Murder

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Fight Club

This month the chain begins with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, a book I haven’t read but it’s about a club where men meet in the basement of bars and can fight ‘as long as they have to’.

The Friday Night Knitting Club

So I’m moving away from a club where men meet and fight to a club where women meet to exchange knitting tips, jokes, and their deepest secrets. It’s The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs. I haven’t read this book either. It seems as though they didn’t do much knitting so maybe there was more ‘natter’ than ‘knitting’. It sounds a bit too angst ridden for me and probably no more appealing than a fight club.

Dying In the Wool (Kate Shackleton, #1)

So, in a complete change of genre I’m moving on to crime fiction and my next link is to another use of wool in Dying in the Wool the first of Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton Mysteries, crime fiction set in Yorkshire in 1922, with flashbacks to 1916.  It’s a post World War 1 crime novel, along the lines of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple books, with an independent female amateur detective. Kate investigates the disappearance of mill owner Joshua Braithwaite who went missing after apparently trying to commit suicide.

Gallows View, the first Inspector Banks book by Peter Robinson, is also set in Yorkshire, where Alice Matlock, an old woman, living on her own, is found dead in her ransacked house in Gallows View, a row of old terraced  cottages. One of the suspects for her murder is a Peeping Tom who is targeting young, blonde women, following them as they leave the pub and then watching as they undress for bed.

A Good Hanging

There is also a Peeping Tom in Tit for Tat, one of the stories in Ian Rankin’s collection of short stories, A Good Hanging. Rebus investigates a fire in a tenement in Edinburgh where John Brodie lives after a woman in a tenement opposite reported a Peeping Tom had been spying on her, aiming his binoculars towards her flat. He claims he was ‘bird-watching’.

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie, #3)

KateAtkinson has written four books about another character called Brodie – Jackson Brodie. My favourite of these books is the third one – When Will There Be Good News? It’s set mainly in Edinburgh where Brodie, along with Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, is involved in the search for a missing woman. It has the most complicated plot, with many twists and interlinking sub-plots (some with convenient coincidences) and I loved it.

The Word Is Murder

Brodie is an ex-policeman and now a private investigator, as is  Daniel Hawthorne in The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. This is a very clever and different type of murder mystery in which the author plays the part of himself helping Hawthorne to solve the murder of Diana Cowper who was killed on the same day that she had made arrangements for her funeral. I was totally unable to solve the mystery, the clues were all there, but I was so involved in sorting out what was real and what wasn’t and enjoying the puzzle that I completely missed them.

This month my chain has travelled from America to the United Kingdom, connected by clubs, wool, settings in Yorkshire, Peeping Toms, characters called Brodie and ex-policemen turned private investigators.

Next month (2 March) the chain will start with The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries: The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries:The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled edited by Otto Penzler is just the book to read at this time of year if, like me, you enjoy mystery fiction with a Christmas theme. It is a big book of 647 pages – so I have an e-book version and dip into into it each Christmas.

It contains stories by a variety of authors including Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Edgar Wallace, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Ed McBain, Sarah Paretsky, Mary Higgins Clark, Ngaio Marsh, Isaac Asimov, G K Chesterton, H R F Keating, Robert Louis Stevenson and more.

Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas by  John Mortimer is one of the stories in the section ‘A Funny Little Christmas’. In it Rumpole is at the Old Bailey defending Edward Timson, the youngest member of the huge south London family of criminals, charged with wilful murder. It’s Christmas and Eddie tells Rumpole his mum wants him hone for Christmas – but Rumpole wonders ‘which Christmas?

Will he make it? The evidence against him is strong. It all began when a war broke out between the Timsons and the O’Dowds when Bridget O’Dowd was chosen to play the role of Mary in the school nativity play and Eddie said she was ‘a spotty little tart unsuited to play any role of which the most notable characteristic was virginity‘. The resulting battle ended with the death of Kevin O’Dowd.

Rumpole is his usual grumpy self, getting drunk on wine in Pommeroy’s Wine Bar with the prosecuting barrister, Wrigglesworth, instead of hurrying home to his wife, Hilda (She Who Must be Obeyed) who has made him rissoles and frozen peas for his dinner. As I read it I could easily imagine the scenes, with Leo McKern playing the role of Rumpole.

Agatha Christie has two stories in the collection – the first is The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in which Hercule Poirot investigates the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’  and the second A Christmas Tragedy, a little puzzle of a mystery. Miss Marple tells the story of the death of Mrs Sanders and how it it had been made to look an accident when it was really a cold-blooded murder. I can’t see any connection in this story to Christmas, but it is definitely a tragedy and for a short story it is very complicated.

There are no stories by Charles Dickens in this collection but Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter begins with a quotation from A Christmas Carol, when Lewis knocks on the door of Morse’s North Oxford flat and Morse greets him whilst shouting down the phone to his bank manager. Like Scrooge Morse doesn’t like Christmas! This story is about the theft of a donation of £400 pounds to a charity for Mentally Handicapped Children the patrons of the George pub. Morse has to follow a series of clues to solve the mystery – and by the end he becomes more like the Christmas Scrooge …

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As this is my last post before Christmas I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!