I used this collection of thirteen Christmas-themed Golden Age detective short stories as a sampler to help me decide which writers to read in 2019.
I found two authors I want to read more of. Most of the rest were entertaining but not enticing.
The stories I enjoyed most were both by women.
“The Case Is Altered” by Majory Allingham was my first experience of an Albert Campion story. The plot was satisfying without getting too fantastical.
The strength of the story came from how vividly and convincingly Allingham describes a luxurious Country House Christmas Party. I was disarmed by the regretful reluctance that Campion brings to the business of solving mysteries. It’s a pleasant change from the egocentric do-you-see-how-clever-I’ve-been? behaviours of other amateur detectives of the period. I’ll be giving the first Campion book, “The Crime At Black Dudley” a try.
“Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White, the story of a young reporter who hides herself away in a waxworks to get a story about whether it’s haunted, worked for me because it felt fresh and energetic and still managed to generate moments of menace. The gender politics in the story are awful but I doubt that much is different today except for a litigation-reducing veneer of we-treat-our-women-well words. I’m going to try “The Wheel Spins” which Hitchcock made into “The Lady Vanishes”.
“Cambric Tea” by Marjorie Bowen showed great skill in creating an atmosphere of menace and paranoia that was quite disturbing, even if the thinly drawn characters were a little unlikely.
“The Chinese Apple” by Marjorie Bowen writing as Joseph Shearing was probably the darkest story in the book. The two women in this story, both strong, neither attracted by duty, each determined to take the steps needed to distance themselves from their unpleasant childhoods, are brilliantly drawn and disturbingly credible. I’d love to read more of Marjorie Bowen writing in this way but none of the books seem to be in print.
Of all the stories written by women in this collection, Dorothy L Sayers’ “The Necklace Of Pearls” made the least impression on me. I found it a bit thin. Peter Wimsey struck me as bloodless and the humour, while it did make me smile, all stemmed from making fun of people’s weaknesses. It didn’t leave me wanting to find a Wimsey book.
On the whole, the stories by men were weaker than the stories by women.
“The Name On The Window” by Edmund Crispin is not so much a story as a logic teaser with just enough story wrapped around it to get the punchline delivered.
“Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace, I skimmed and then skipped. He’s a writer who I have never enjoyed. I find him false. He is glossy and self-assured and has some smart ideas but I don’t believe him. I see too much disdain for his own characters beneath the shiny veneer of his prose. So, I skipped him. Which doesn’t mean you should. Although I would if I were you.
“”A Problem In White” by Nicholas White is a board game with archetypes rather than people and answers on a cheat sheet at the end of the book rather than in a formal denouement. This is either innovative, pre-figuring interactive media or it’s the height of laziness.
“The Absconding Treasurer” by J. Jefferson Farjeon is competent but bloodless, uses humour that rather looks down on country folk and a detective who is a plot device rather than a person.
I had high hopes of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story “The Flying Stars” but after several pages of waffling text stuffed with clichéd characters that the author seemed to hold in contempt, I no longer cared what happened to the jewels or any of the people in the story, so I abandoned it.
“Parlour Tricks” by Ralph Plummer is an amuse-bouche, well described by its title. A small conceit worked into a small parcel of entertainment. Nothing memorable but nothing to object to either.
“A Happy Solution” by Raymund Allen I skipped as it seems to have been written for chess players and so was beyond me.
“Beef For Christmas” by Leo Bruce raises the game a bit with a clever puzzle and a playful twist on the Holmes/Watson dynamic by having Beef, the detective, as blunt and laconic. The crime itself requires such suspension of disbelief that it would fit well in a pantomime.
“The Unknown Murderer” by H. C. Bailey was a welcome surprise. His Dr Fortune character rather charmed me for being not in the least bit charming. I liked his “natural man” stance and his preference for being really quite good at many things but not truly expert in anything, except perhaps seeing people clearly and acting on what he sees.
Standing head and shoulders over the work of the other male authors is Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Blue Carbuncle”. It’s a light piece of Christmas whimsey, told in an unremarkable linear manner. What sets it apart is the confident economy of the writing and the skilful presentation of Sherlock Holmes’ ravenous curiosity and unassailable self-esteem. This story is as much a gem as the object it revolves around.