For a number of reasons, this lead up to Christmas is quite stressful, and my own writing is not going so very well. My mother is poorly, my son moving into his first flat and December is racing away with me at such speed that I am afraid to blink in case I miss the big day.
However, that does mean that I can indulge in a very relaxing hobby, pursued from mid November onward. My usually fairly eclectic list of books to read becomes skewed towards those books with a Christmas setting. Those first bells and snowflakes. Amongst books as diverse as The Xmas Files – The Philosophy of Christmas (full of interesting philosophical questions to annoy your family with as they settle down to their turkey…) and Anne Perry’s A Christmas Hope (formulaic but gently entertaining) I also re-read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and A Child’d Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. I can’t read these books at any other time of year so eat the pages up greedily to make the most of every festive moment.
This year, things are slightly different as I have caught a reading bug that began going round last year, when British Library Crime Classics brought out crime and mystery fiction from the Golden Age of crime – from the 1920s to 50s – by authors well known and new to discover.
I have now indulged to the point where I feel the need to share some of these delicious stories, and give you a chance to get hold of them in the last few days before Christmas and the New Year and find out for yourselves why one or two of them have become surprise best sellers.
The first is Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (British Library Crime Classics) by J. Jefferson Farjeon. (1883 – 1955) Farjeon wrote more than 60 crime and thriller novel s popular with other great writers of the time such as Dorothy L Sayers.who said ‘Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures’. His work has been out of fashion for many years before British Library Crime Classics rediscovered it, and it became something of a sensation in 2014.
I thoroughly enjoyed this mysterious and unusual ‘whodunnit’, which overtones of another theme popular at the time – spiritualism.
It is described thus: ‘The horror on the train, great though it may turn out to be, will not compare with the horror that exists here, in this house.’ On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home. Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.
It is fun to read, when the language becomes familiar (and anyone loving Christie, Sayers et al won’t find it takes long) and there are sufficient red herrings and false (and real) trails to give the reader a chance of working out what is going on. Or simply go along for the ride – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Secondly, why not try Crime at Christmas by C H B Kitchen, published by Faber & Faber. To set the mood:
‘There we were, all gathered together for a Christmas party, and plunged suddenly into gloom.’
It’s Christmas at Hampstead’s Beresford Lodge. A group of relatives and intimate friends gather to celebrate the festive season, but their party is rudely interrupted by a violent death. It isn’t long before a second body is discovered. Can the murderer be one of those in the great house? The stockbroker sleuth Malcolm Warren investigates, in this brilliantly witty mystery.
I think Kitchen was a tad ahead of his time. A fairly typical country house death becomes something far more sinister and stockbroker Malcolm Warren (who has appeared in a previous Kitchen detective story) is left to work it out, initially sidestepping the curious Inspector – a lovely character- and then finding teamwork solved the twisted little mystery far more satisfactorily. Again, the language is early to mid 20th century and with Warren a rather introspective and thoughtful man, who offers the reader the opportunity to ask all those questions not covered in the text in a fictional discussion at the end, you find yourself transported into the minds of criminal and policeman. Great stuff.
Another British Library Crime Classic , The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay is decidedly odd, although on the face of it the standard device is properly in place – a country house, a curmudgeonly old patriarch and Christmas. But we hear the story through the eyes of a number of the characters before we hear from the Chief Constable who has to unpick a mystery cast with a troupe of characters he thought he knew well, but who make it clear they all have their secrets. …..
Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better.
This one was slightly harder to get in to, and many of the characters were less than likeable. However, it is a good example of the genre and if you love a good whodunnit there are ample clues to help you reach the identity of the murderer before the end. Just go with it, and I think by the end you feel will feel satisfied at the conclusion (very important in my view!)
I have just finished another British Library Classic – Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries which was edited by one of my favourite modern crime writers, Martin Edwards ,author of the Lake District mysteries. It is a collection of short stories, written by a wide range of ‘Golden Age’ crime writers. Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers and Marjery Allingham are all there, sharing the space with writers famous in their day but long forgotten by most of us. I particularly enjoyed Waxworks, by Ethel Lina White and Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen. One review states:
Like an assortment of presents under a Christmas tree, there’s something for everyone in this Yule-themed anthology … Classic tales of murder and jewel thievery with a light dusting of snow.
I agree- I gobbled these stories up. Often an anthology is patchy, but I enjoyed each story for a different reason and have learnt much about how to drive a good plot forward with a limited word count. Of course, dip in and skip at will – that is the joy of the Christmas season. One minute one is reading, chilling with a glass of something and a mince pie and the next everyone has to thrill to Pictionary and fractious children. A short read may be just what you need to get back in a mellow mood.
At this point I feel it necessary to mention one book I was really disappointed in, mostly because it has been renamed and rebranded in a jacket similar to those designed by the British Library. Now called Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas Mystery, it is by Jill McGown and now has a different cover and title (it was first published as ‘Redemption’ in the UK, and marketed to the US with an homage to Agatha Christie.) It is set in the 1980s or 1990s, feels dated and although the murder is baffling, it is only so because there were not enough suspects and the whole plot felt incestuous and hard to picture. It is out of place with the other books it is being marketed with and dare I say, feels like a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’.
So I have now got one more to read – Murder for Christmas (Vintage Murder Mystery) by Francis Duncan. Duncan is apparently due a relaunch; there are some 20 other crime stories in his back catalogue Apparently:
Mordecai Tremaine, former tobacconist and perennial lover of romance novels, has been invited to spend Christmas in the sleepy village of Sherbroome at the country retreat of one Benedict Grame.
Arriving on Christmas Eve, he finds that the revelries are in full flow – but so too are tensions amongst the assortment of guests.
Midnight strikes and the party-goers discover that it’s not just presents nestling under the tree…there’s a dead body too. A dead body that bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas.
Can’t wait to get started. Do give some of these a try if you are into crime, or into Christmas or, best still, both. I found two via our local library and others are available via all good bookshops (and Amazon).
Let me know what you think, and I would love to know of any books you have read in the lead up to the big day that have thrilled, thwarted or frustrated you. And do you have a favourite Christmas read of any genre?
A very Happy Christmas from No Wriggling Out of Writing, and all good wishes for a fabulous new year of reading!