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 Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter

Chief Inspector Morse is one of my favourite fictional detectives (maybe even the favourite). I first ‘met’ him years ago in the ITV series Inspector Morse and so, just as Joan Hickson is forever in my mind as Miss Marple and David Suchet is Poirot, John Thaw is Morse. The series was first broadcast in 1987, but I don’t intend to write about the books versus the TV adaptations – I’ve enjoyed both. This post is just about the last book in the series – The Remorseful Day.

I’ve delayed reading this for so long (I watched the TV version when it was first broadcast, which was 15 years ago!) because it’s the last of the Morse books and sadly the end of Morse too. So if you’ve not read any of the Morse books I suggest that you don’t start with this one.

Needless to say that I loved it. The plot is detailed, complex and as usual with Morse a puzzle type murder mystery with plenty of challenging clues. Sergeant Lewis is left to investigate the murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison that had remained unsolved for a year – Morse initially refused to work on the case, despite Chief Superintendent Strange’s wishes. Sergeant Lewis is concerned as this looks just the sort of puzzle Morse excels in solving … and Morse’s behaviour has been worrying Lewis recently.  Lewis can’t believe that Morse could have a personal reason to keep out of the investigation. And when Morse phones to say he is feeling unwell Lewis is most concerned – Morse seldom mentioned his health, what is wrong with him?

The plot is complex, but the real focus of the book is on Morse and how he copes with his illness and his drinking habits and it becomes obvious just how alone he is in the world and how devastating his situation is to Lewis. The novel also reveals more about Strange’s character and also about his understanding of Morse. I found it both a most satisfying book and a very sad one.

There are only 13 Morse books. The links are to my posts on the books – I read some before I began to write this blog and I’m hoping to re-read those in due course.

  1. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
  2. Last Seen Wearing (1976)
  3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
  4. Service of All the Dead (1979)
  5. The Dead of Jericho (1981)
  6. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
  7. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
  8. The Wench is Dead (1989)
  9. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
  10. The Way Through the Woods (1992)
  11. The Daughters of Cain (1994)
  12. Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
  13. The Remorseful Day (1999)

As The Remorseful Day has sat unread on my shelves for so long it obviously qualifies for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015. I also included it as one of My 10 Books of Summer, which brings my total to 5.

The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter: Mini Review

I really enjoyed reading Colin Dexter’s The Way Through The Woods, the tenth book in his Inspector Morse series. It’s nicely complicated and full of puzzles as Morse aided by Sergeant Lewis investigate the case of a beautiful young Swedish tourist who had disappeared on a hot summer’s day somewhere near Oxford twelve months earlier. After unsuccessfully searching the woods of the nearby Blenheim Estate the case was unsolved, and Karin Eriksson had been recorded as a missing person.

A year later Morse is on holiday at Lyme Regis when The Times published an article on the missing woman together with an anonymous poem that had been sent in that the police thought could help pinpoint the whereabouts of her body. This sets in motion more letters to The Times and ultimately to Morse being assigned to re-open the case.

I was completely engrossed in this book, trying to follow all the possible interpretations of the poem and the witness statements as Morse and Lewis go over the old evidence and turn up new information. This involves a trip to Wales for Morse and one to Sweden for Lewis, Wytham Woods is searched and a body is found – but whose is it? This book sees the first appearance of forensic pathologist, Dr Laura Hobson. But it’s not just the mystery, the crossword type clues, the characterisation and all the twist and turns that make this book so enjoyable, it’s the writing, the descriptions of the scenery and locations bringing them vividly to my mind.

This book has been sitting unread on my shelves for three years and is the last of my to-be-read books of 2014. An excellent book!

Service of All the Dead by Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter 001A question on the TV show Pointless about the novels of Colin Dexter reminded me I have a few of his books to read, Service of All the Dead being one of them – and it was one of the pointless answers too! So that gave me the push to read it.  My copy is a secondhand book €“ an Omnibus containing  The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn as well as Service of All the Dead.

It really is one of the most puzzling crime fiction books I’ve read – if not the most puzzling! CI Morse sums it up himself:

There are some extremely odd points in this case, Lewis – or rather there were – each of them in itself suggestive but also puzzling. They puzzled all of us, and perhaps still do to some extent, because by the time we’d finished we’d got no less than five bodies on our hands and we were never in a position to learn what any of the five could have told us. (page 295)

Morse was on holiday, bored and at a loose end, when, stepping off a bus near St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, he saw a notice advertising a jumble sale at the church – it seemed to him pre-ordained that he should enter the church. This set in motion his fascination with the death of the churchwarden, killed in the church the previous year and his subsequent discovery of the deaths of four more people. His interest is enhanced by the attraction he feels for Ruth Rawlinson, who cleans the church.

Aided by Sergeant Lewis, he digs into the history of the churchwarden, the vicar and members of the church and uncovers an intricate web of lies and deceit. Morse acts on instinct and consequently both Lewis and myself were in the dark for a great part of this book. He proposes several motives for the murders and alternate scenarios of what had happened before untangling the complex mess. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns.

Even though I was lost in the plot I found the book compelling reading – it’s a superbly constructed puzzle. This is certainly not a police procedural in the normal sense – there is little account of forensic evidence for example. It is strong on character and on place. The scene of the murders is St Frideswide’s, a fictional church, possibly based a couple of Oxford churches, St Michael-by-the-North-Gate with a Saxon tower and St Mary Magdalen and it is there in the tower that Morse suffers from his great fear of heights.

Service of All the Dead was first published in 1979. I suppose I must have seen the TV version of this book, as I watched all the episodes and this one was shown in 1987 – I don’t remember it! Inevitably as I read it I could see John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis.

Crime Fiction Alphabet – D

This week’s letter is D in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet series and I’ve chosen to feature Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, the third Inspector Morse book  first published in 1977.

For years I’ve been watching and enjoying Inspector Morse on TV. We used to live not far from Oxford and one of the pleasures of watching the series was identifying the locations. One evening we went with a group of friends on a Morse pub tour, (organised by ourselves) visiting a few of the pubs featured in the books – one of our favourites used to be The Trout Inn at Wolvercote, before it was renovated when you could get an old fashioned Sunday Roast, with waiter service.

I don’t remember seeing an episode of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, so apart from visualising John Thaw and Kevin Whately as Morse and Lewis I was free to see the novel through Colin Dexter’s words. My copy is a secondhand book – an Omnibus containing Service of All the Dead as well as The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.

Description from the back cover:

Morse had never ceased to wonder why, with the staggering advances in medical science, all pronouncements concerning times of death seemed so disconcertingly vague.

The newly appointed member of the Oxford Examinations Syndicate was deaf, provincial and gifted. Now he is dead . . .

And his murder, in his north Oxford home, proves to be the start of a formidably labyrinthine case for Chief Inspector Morse, as he tries to track down the killer through the insular and bitchy world of the Oxford Colleges . . .

My View

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. As the blurb on the back cover indicated the time of Quinn’s death is of prime importance, but then so is the place of his death. His deafness, as I expected is also crucial. Morse and Lewis come across as well defined characters, and so do all the other characters – Quinn’s colleagues and neighbours. The setting, as I expected, is excellent, but then I am familiar with Oxford.

For a long time when reading I had little idea who the culprit was. It has a most complicated plot that kept me guessing right to the end. It’s one of those books that I want to start again as soon as I finished it to see  just which clues I’d missed. Morse, himself, was baffled too but eventually worked it out successfully, whilst Lewis struggled to catch up with his train of thought, as this extract shows:

(Morse speaking first) ‘Remember this, then: Quinn couldn’t hear what he didn’t see.’

Am I supposed to see why all that is important, sir?’

‘Oh, yes. And you will do, Lewis, if only you think back to the Friday when Quinn was murdered.’

‘He was definitely murdered on the Friday, then?’

‘I think if you pushed me I could tell you to within sixty seconds!’  He looked very smug about the whole thing and Lewis felt torn between the wish to satisfy his own curiosity and a reluctance to gratify the chief’s inflated ego even further. Yet he thought he caught  a glimpse of the truth at last … Yes, of course. Noakes had said … He nodded several times, and his curiosity won.

‘What about all the business at the cinema, though? Was that all a red herring?’ (pages 243-4)

Reading the book I realised that Colin Dexter not only knows Oxford very well (which wasn’t news to me!) but also was very familiar with the workings of  an Examination Board and understood the difficulties of lip-reading. The reason for this is that after being a teacher, because of his deafness he became the Senior Assistant Secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (UODLE) in Oxford, just like Quinn.