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 …

~~~

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

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Ingenious! That’s what I thought when I’d finished reading The Murder at the Vicarage. Although Agatha Christie had written short stories featuring Miss Marple this is the first full length Miss Marple story, published in 1930.

I’ve been reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction for a few years now, totally out of order, which is why I’ve only just got round to reading The Murder at the Vicarage. I’d picked up along the way on the fact that Miss Marple uses her knowledge of people to help her solve the mysteries she investigates. And it is in this book that her use of analogy is made absolutely explicit, as she considers who could have killed Colonel Prothero, the unpopular churchwarden, found in the vicar’s study shot through the head. She comes up with seven suspects, all based on examples of human behaviour she has observed in the past.

Miss Marple is not the popular figure she appears in the later books as not everybody likes her. The vicar does, liking her sense of humour, and describing her as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner’, whereas his wife describes her as ‘the worst cat in the village. And she always knows everything that happens – and draws the worst inference from it.

But it is very helpful to know what is going on in St Mary Mead, about Dr Stone, a well-known archaeologist superintending the excavation of a barrow on Colonel Protheroe’s land and about Mrs Lestrange, a mysterious woman who has recently moved to the village and also about who was coming and going to the vicarage and when.

It’s also helpful to have a a plan of St Mary Mead, showing where the main characters live, and plans of the layout of the vicarage and the vicar’s study, where the murder occurred.

After one of the suspects confesses to the murder Inspector Slack, who shows his contempt for Miss Marple, thinks the case is closed, but Miss Marple is puzzled – the facts seem to her to be wrong. The Murder at the Vicarage has an intricate plot, is full of red herrings and was impossible for me to unravel, but Miss Marple with her knowledge of ‘Human Nature’ solves the mystery.

I enjoyed this book very much, but Agatha Christie writing her Autobiography years later, wasn’t all that pleased with it. She thought it had too many characters and too many sub-plots; she is probably right. But she thought that the main plot was sound and that the village was as real to her as it could be. It’s real to me too.

They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie

I’m slowly reading my way through Agatha Christie’s books, not in chronological order, but just as I come across them and this month I’ve read They Do It With Mirrors which was first published in 1952.

I don’t think it’s one of her best, but I did like it. It begins with Miss Marple reminiscing with an old friend, Mrs Ruth Van Rydock, an American. Miss Marple has known her and her sister, Carrie Louise since they had been together at a pensionnat in Florence. Ruth is worried about Carrie Louise, who is now living in a country house in the south of England with her husband, Lewis Serrocold, which he has turned into a home for delinquent boys. She can’t put her finger on what is wrong, she just felt the atmosphere wasn’t right, whether it was the boys’ home – ‘those dreadful young delinquents‘ or something else and she asks Miss Marple to visit Carrie Louise to see if her fears are justified.

Miss Marple finds an unhappy household, including Mildred, Carrie Louise’s widowed daughter, Stephen and Alex, her stepsons, and Gina, her adopted daughter’s daughter, married to an American, Wally Hudd. Lewis Serrocold is Carrie’s third husband, described by Ruth as a

‘crank’, a ‘man with ideals’, ‘bitten by the bug of wanting to improve everybody’s lives for them. And, really you know, nobody can do that but yourself.’

All is not well with the boys either – one of them, Edgar Lawson is suffering from delusions, saying his father is Churchill and then that he is Montgomery. He loses control and Lewis takes him into his office, but their raised voices are heard by the others, culminating in the sound of gunshots. But it is not Lewis or Edgar who is killed, but one of the trustees of the home, Christian Gulbrandsen, the brother of Carrie Louise’s first husband who was alone in his study. So Ruth’s fears materialise when Christian is found shot dead and it seems that someone is trying to poison Carrie Louise.

As I expected from the title not everything is as it appears.  The layout of the house is of importance and there is a plan showing how the rooms are connected, but even so I was still in the dark. I hadn’t worked out who the murderer is and had even ruled out the person in question quite early on in the book. Miss Marple, however, was not deceived and had sorted out the reality from the illusion and seen through the misdirection.

… all the things that seemed to be true were only illusions. Illusions created for a definite purpose – in the same way that conjurers create illusions to deceive an audience.

There are a number of points that struck me as interesting as I read the book, not essential to the plot, but maybe revealing Agatha Christie’s opinions and her views of post-war society. There is the subject of self-help and the issue of expecting things to be granted as a right, focussing on providing education for the juvenile delinquents by men crazy with enthusiasm like Lewis Serrocold:

One of those men of enormous will power who like living on a banana and a piece of toast and put all their energies into a Cause.

 

She makes the point that just because a person comes from a deprived background doesn’t mean they’re going to turn into criminals and it is the honest ones who could do with a start in life – ‘But there, honesty has to be its own reward – millionaires don’t leave trust funds to help the worthwhile.’

There are comments on the oddness of the English, being prouder of defeats and retreats than of their victories, using Dunkirk as an example and the Charge of the Light Brigade. At the same time as I was reading this I was also reading Jeremy Paxman’s The English: a Portrait of a People, in which he also comments on this trait – turning the consequence of catastrophe into a ‘victorious retreat’.

On a more personal level there are her views on the vulnerability of women:

Women have a much worse time of it in the world than men do. They’re more vulnerable. They have children and they mind – terribly – about their children. As soon as they lose their looks, the men they love don’t love them any more. They’re betrayed and deserted and pushed aside.

 

I can’t help thinking that really was Agatha Christie speaking from experience.

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

A Murder is Announced was first published in 1950. My copy is in a collection of four Miss Marple stories – A Miss Marple Quartet. I particularly like this cover, showing Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Synopsis from Amazon:

The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, including Jane Marple, are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: €˜A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.’

A childish practical joke? Or a hoax intended to scare poor Letitia Blacklock? Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out€¦

Of course it isn’t a practical joke and someone is murdered. But the mystery is to identify the victim – it’s not as straight forward as it first appears and there are plenty of red herrings. I vaguely remembered seeing the TV version (with Joan Hickson, perfect as Miss Marple) years ago and although I couldn’t remember who did it knew that I had to pay close attention to the detail of where people were sitting or standing in the room at the Little Paddocks when the lights went out. But even though I read it very carefully I was still baffled. It all hinges on family relationships and details of the characters’ identities which are so skilfully hidden that I was kept guessing until very near the end.

It’s not without flaws, some of the characters are a bit sketchy, and some of the novel borders on farce, with Miss Marple imitating a dead person’s voice whilst hiding in a broom cupboard and Mitzi, the highly strung and paranoid cook, a refugee from Germany, screaming like a siren and insisting that the police will take her away and torture her. Still, I wish her recipe for the chocolate cake ‘Delicious Death’ had been revealed.

What I really like about A Murder is Announced is the picture it paints of life in post-war Britain, showing how society was in the process of change. Miss Marple is her usual brilliant self, now seeming very old with ‘snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes’, chattering and fluttering, but still as sharp and observant as ever. As she explains the world has changed since the war when everyone knew who everybody was. But now people come and settle in a village and all you know of them is what they say of themselves – you don’t know who they really are! And so, she compares them to the people she does know, people in her village of St Mary Mead, which helps to throw light on the mystery. It’s a layered mystery involving past illness, identities, and questions of inheritance.

Greenshaw's Folly: a Miss Marple Mystery

Agatha Christie’s Marple last night was Greenshaw’s Folly. I saw in the Radio Times that it was based on Christie’s short story of the same name and so I read it before watching the programme. It’s less than 20 pages and I wondered how the script writers were going to make it last 2 hours, even with the advert breaks. Well, of course, they padded out with other plot elements and characters. And there are more murders, and some farcical scenes with policemen running wild – all a bit of a mess really, but lightly done.

Greenshaw’s Folly is a house, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew), who does not appear in the TV version and Horace Bindler, a literary critic (an undercover reporter in the TV version). It’s an unbelievable architectural monstrosity, built by a Mr Greenshaw. Raymond explained:

‘He had visited the chateaux of the Loire, don’t you think? Those turrets. And then, rather unfortunately, he seems to have travelled in the Orient. The influence of the Taj Mahal is unmistakeable. I rather like the Moorish wing,’ he added, ‘and the traces of a Venetian palace.’ (extract from the short story)

The short story is compact, whereas the TV version is packed with poisonings, ghosts, locked rooms, concealed identities, and so on. But apart from that, I’m not going to try to compare the TV show to the short story as there are so many differences that they are really two separate entities. And both are enjoyable in their own way. Julia Mackenzie is nearly right as Miss Marple, not as good as Joan Hickson, but then who could be. I just wish the sweet smile was toned down a little. The rest of the cast included Fiona Shaw, Julia Sawalha, Joanna David, Judy Parfitt, Robert Glenister and Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves). All were very good, especially Bobby Smalldridge as Archie Oxley (Mrs Oxley’s young son who does not appear in the short story).

Greenshaw’s Folly was first published in the Daily Mail 3 – 7 December 1956 and is included in Miss Marple and Mystery The Complete Short Stories.

I see that one of the plot elements involving the use of atropine and its antidote has been taken from one of the other stories in this collection, The Thumb Mark of St Peter, first published in 1928. I think the script writers must have had great fun with these stories.

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

At Bertrams Hotel 001

I try to read at least one Agatha Christie book a month. This month’s book is At Bertram’s Hotel, a Miss Marple book, first published in 1965, and written when Agatha Christie was seventy five.

Synopsis (from book cover):

An old-fashioned London Hotel is not quite as reputable as it makes out’¦

When Miss Marple comes up from the country for a holiday in London, she finds what she’s looking for at Bertram’s Hotel: traditional decor, impeccable service and an unmistakable atmosphere of danger behind the highly polished veneer.

Yet, not even Miss Marple can foresee the violent chain of events set in motion when an eccentric guest makes his way to the airport on the wrong day’.

My view:

Miss Marple is now the same age as Agatha Christie was at the time she was writing At Bertram’s Hotel and some of her thoughts and reactions are most likely to be those of the author herself  – reflections on comfort for example – most appreciative of her bed, and a beautifully cooked breakfast, a real breakfast with properly poached eggs and enjoying ‘a delightful morning of shopping’ at the Army& Navy Stores.  But Miss Marple is not one of the main characters in this book, although she does play a vital role.

In some ways, Bertram’s Hotel itself is a leading ‘character’. It’s ‘dignified, unostentatious and quietly expensive‘, patronised by clergymen, ‘dowager ladies of the aristocracy up from the country’ and ‘girls on their way home from expensive finishing schools.’ It’s Miss Marple’s choice when her nephew and his wife decide to do something for ‘poor old Aunt Jane’ and pay for her week’s stay. And yet it doesn’t seem real to her, the fact that it didn’t seem to have changed over the years made her think that it ‘really seemed too good to be true.’ (page 26)

There’s a long build up to any crime being committed and It’s only towards the end of the book that a murder occurs. Scotland Yard are concerned about a crime network that is getting too big and organised:

Robbery on a big scale was increasing. Bank hold-ups, snatches of pay-rolls, thefts of consignments of jewels sent through the mail, train robberies. Hardly a month passed but some daring and stupendous coup was attempted and brought off safely. (page 49)

(I was reminded that Agatha Christie was writing this at the time of, or shortly after the ‘Great Train Robbery’ of 1963 in which a gang of robbers held up a mail train and made off with £2.6 million (equivalent to £41 million now) – later in the book a train robbery takes place in Ireland.)

A number of characters are introduced quite quickly and I had to keep reminding myself who they were and how they fitted into the story. There’s the hotel staff, including Henry the ‘perfect butler’ and the visitors, including Lady Sedgewick and a number of elderly ladies, Colonel Luscombe and other retired military gentlemen, Canon Pennyfather, a vague forgetful white-haired elderly cleric, Elvira Blake, Colonel Luscombe’s ward and the police, including Chief Inspector Davy (nicknamed ‘Father’ by his staff – a nickname that I thought irritating and out of place, probably intended to make him seem paternal and safe). There is also the mysterious Mr Robinson, who I’ve come across in some of Agatha Christie’s other books.

The novel meanders along through a number of subplots before reaching the climax, which I thought was a bit signposted. The ending is both predictable and surprising with a final twist in the last sentence that pleased me.

One of the things I like about At Bertram’s Hotel are the little insights into Miss Marple’s mind – and her past. For example she had first visited Bertram’s Hotel as a  girl of fourteen with her uncle and aunt, her Uncle Thomas had been a Canon of Ely. And I was delighted to discover that she had known romance because when she was a young woman she had had a friendship with ‘a very unsuitable young man‘ whose name she has forgotten. But her mother had firmly nipped that friendship in the bud, which later Jane realised was wise although at the time Jane Marple, ‘that pink and white eager  young girl … such a silly girl in many ways’ had ‘cried herself to sleep for at least a week.’ (page 26)

As in other books featuring Miss Marple it’s her characteristic curiosity, what she preferred to call ‘taking an interest in other people’s affairs’, that is crucial to the plot. She is very good at overhearing conversations and she’s a light sleeper. She’s also very perceptive and just a touch cynical, no longer the silly girl of her youth.

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece edition edition (1 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007121032
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007121038
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 4/5

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie: a Book Review

Sleeping Murder is Miss Marple’s last case, published posthumously in 1976, although Agatha Christie had written it during the Second World War. Miss Marple investigates a murder that had happened 18 years ago.

 As I began to read I thought it seemed familiar and then I realised I’d watched the TV version a few years ago, with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple and after a couple of chapters I remembered who the murderer was. This didn’t spoil my enjoyment as I was able to see the clues as they cropped up.

Newly married Gwenda has bought a house in Devon. She had only recently returned to England from New Zealand where she had been brought up by an aunt after the death of her parents when she was a small child. She immediately felt at home in the house, but then began to have strange premonitions and whilst she was at the theatre watching The Duchess of Malfi  she had a vision of a murder at the house she had just bought. She heard the words:

‘Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young …’

Gwenda screamed.

She sprang up from her seat, pushed blindly past the others out into the aisle, through the exit and up the stairs and so to the street. She did not stop, even then, but half walked, half ran, in a blind panic up the Haymarket (Page 27)

She is convinced that she is going mad, but she is helped by Miss Marple, whose nephew, Raymond West is a distant cousin of Gwenda’s husband, Giles. It’s a most baffling ‘˜cold case’, because first of all they have to discover who, if anyone, had been killed, where, when and why. It does all rather depend on a number of coincidences, beginning with the fact that Gwenda has bought the house that she had lived in as a very young child, but as Miss Marple explains to Gwenda:

‘˜It’s not impossible, my dear. It’s just a very remarkable coincidence – and remarkable coincidences do happen. You wanted a house on the south coast, you were looking for one, and you passed a house that stirred memories and attracted you. It was the right size and a reasonable price, so you bought it. No, it’s not too wildly improbable. Had the house been merely what it is called (perhaps rightly) a haunted house, you would have reacted differently, I think. But you had no feeling of violence or revulsion except, so you have told me, at one very definite moment, and that was when you were just starting to come down the staircase and looking down into the hall. (Pages 33-4)

That moment, as it turned out was very significant, indeed.

Sleeping Murder is a satisfying puzzle and I liked this last view of Miss Marple, compassionate and shrewd and this description of her appearance:

Miss Marple was an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner. Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them. (page 26)

  • My rating: 4/5
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece edition (Reissue) edition (2 Jun 2008)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0007121067
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007121069
  • Source: I bought the book