The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Five)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Here’s section six.
(Section 1, 2, 3 & 4, 5)

A Scary Little Christmas

  • The Carol Singers, Josephine Bell - A well told tale. I liked the extensive picture of the victim before the real plot.
  • Waxworks, Ethel Lina White - Creepy. I liked it, except for a hint of period-typical sexism.
  • Cambric Tea, Marjorie Bowen - Weird pacing, weird ending, a bit deus ex machina.
  • The 74th Tale, Jonathan Santlofer - First piece of true horror.
  • The Uninnocent, Bradford Morrow - Decent tone, but unsatisfying. A bit ‘mystery for it’s own sake’.
  • Blue Christmas, Peter Robinson - Nice vignette of melancholy and hope.

There’s a bit of everything in this section. The two that didn’t really work for me were "Cambric Tea" and "The Uninnocent". "Cambric Tea" is about a doctor called to the bedside of a man who believes his wife is poisoning him. The twist, of course, is that the wife is the doctor’s former lover. It has a slow pace and odd structure that hasn’t aged well, and the characters come out okay through no action of their own.

"The Uninnocent" and "The 74th Tale" are both portraits of dark characters from their side of the story, but The 74th Tale works better. The Uninnocent has an okay prose style, it’s about a woman looking back at a childhood marred by a belief that the ghost of their dead brother was causing her and her sister to commit awful acts. However, the payoff is kind of vague, and the story is left slightly too much of a mystery for my taste. The 74th Tale, meanwhile, has a creepy, steady build that you can’t look away from.

"Waxworks" is a fun story about a young ambitious newspaper woman who spends Christmas Eve in a supposedly haunted and cursed wax museum, and "The Carol Singers" is a solid investigation story. The only scary part of the latter is during the actual murder, the rest is first a detailed picture of the victim’s life, and then the story of how the killers are caught.

The standout in this section, though, was definitely the last story. "Blue Christmas" is about a police detective called in to oversee a missing person case on Christmas Eve. There’s something off about the family’s story, but the tale takes a turn into emotional crisis, when they find the missing woman perched on a high viaduct above train tracks. Detective Banks goes up to try to talk her away from the edge, and the story ends on a hopeful note, that sometimes people can change their unhappy lives, or at least try to be human for each other, even at Christmas.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Four)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is section five.

An Uncanny Little Christmas

  • The Haunted Crescent, Peter Lovesey - Okay, yeah, I like it. Nice unexpected twist.
  • A Christmas in Camp, Edmund Cox - Huh. Very odd. Problematic.
  • The Christmas Bogey, Pat Frank - I don't know why this is in this section, but it’s funny and cute.
  • The Killer Christian, Andrew Klavan - Not bad. Not a style I enjoy. But not bad.
  • The Ghost’s Touch, Fergus Hume - Also not bad, though a bit obvious.
  • A Wreath for Marley, Max Allan Collins - I expected a dark twist, instead I got a solid sweet period Christmas Carol.

This section focused on ghost stories. The two I liked least of these tales were "A Christmas in Camp" and "The Killer Christian". The first is from 1911, and has all of that awkwardness about British authors writing about their time in India. The story itself is very odd, too. It’s a little bit a morality tale and a little bit a ghost story and a lot patronizing. "The Killer Christian" has a lot of baggage caused by the circumstances of its writing: it was a gift for customers of the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC, so it shoehorns in a bunch of references. The story is about a religious hitman who tries to change his ways after an experience in which he sees a (fake) angel, and it’s okay, but not really to my taste.

"The Haunted Crescent" is a more traditional ghost story, about an investigation on Christmas Eve into a long-ago murder. It's very well done. "The Ghost’s Touch" is a decent example of a ghost story being used for attempted murder.

The best stories are the two I haven’t mentioned yet, and they are very different from each other. "The Christmas Bogey" doesn’t seem to have much to do with ‘uncanny’, so I don’t know why it’s in this section, but it follows an unidentified radar blip on Christmas Eve, and the series of events as each person who could or should deal with it reacts differently due to the holiday. It’s a tight piece: a puzzle box and a joke in short story form.

"A Wreath for Marley" is a retelling of A Christmas Carol set in America in the 40’s. Richard Stone, PI, is the main character, and his partner, Jake Marley, has been dead a year when the story opens. Stone has been getting crookeder and meaner since before Marley died, and he’s due a little ghostly intervention. He is, of course, visited by Marley himself, who wants Stone to solve his murder, and three ghosts to bring him through the past, the present and the future. The choices of where to parallel the original and where to stress the differences make for both an intellectually and emotionally engaging tale. It’s got great style and swagger, and a satisfying close.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (part Three)

Monday, December 8, 2014

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. (Part one, two) Today I’ve finished the third and fourth sections; they’re a bit shorter than the others.

A Sherlockian Little Christmas

  • A Scandal in Winter, Gillian Linscott - Ridonkulously cute.
  • The Christmas Client, Edward D. Hoch - Well constructed pastiche if a bit too convenient with the names of secondary characters.
  • The Secret in the Pudding Bag & Herlock Sholmes’s Christmas Case, Peter Todd - Why would anyone write or read this ever?
  • Christmas Eve, S. C. Roberts - Charming. Slightly kinder than the originals but very well done.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Arthur Conan Doyle - Still love it.

This was an interesting section, all stories that connected to both Christmas and Sherlock Holmes. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", being original Doyle, is of course in a class by itself. (See my review of the television episode)

The Peter Todd stories are… odd. They are parodies, written in 1916 and 1924. The author’s real name is Charles Hamilton, and he apparently wrote a insane amount of content under dozens of pseudonyms. Most of his work seems to be children’s material. The kindest thing I can say here is that I do not think the humor has aged well. It’s a little bit like trying to read an episode of Saturday Night Live that was written a century ago. I can’t quite see what it is getting at.

Happily, the other stories are decent to great. "Christmas Eve" is sweet, written as a script. "A Scandal in Winter" follows a young girl at a ski resort in 1910 with her family that is visited by an aging Holmes and Watson, as well as a mystery surrounding one Irene née Adler. It’s a delightful perspective on these characters, subtle and well-crafted.

The notes say that story was written for a compilation of Holmes Christmas tales. Maybe I’ll put a pin in that for another year.

A Pulpy Little Christmas

  • Dead on Christmas Street, John D. MacDonald - This is the best investigative story so far that isn't Holmes.
  • Crime’s Christmas Carol, Norvell Page - Sweet & dark spin on "The Gift of the Magi".
  • Serenade to a Killer, Joseph Commings - Style was interesting, plot about bit doubtful.

Oh, now we’re talking. The tone of these stories was fantastic. "Dead on Christmas Street" is a solid little noir story about a witness who ‘fell’ out a window, and the investigators trying to get the real story. It’s marred by a bit of typical-of-the-time sexism, but nothing too egregious. "Crime’s Christmas Carol" follows a couple in desperate straits who each break their moral code for the sake of giving the other a decent holiday, only to be rescued by fate and luck.

"Serenade to a Killer" was the odd one out. In a sense a classic locked-room murder mystery, and in another sense a series of theories about abnormal psychological conditions. Do not take as medical science anything in this particular story.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part two)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is section two.

A Funny Little Christmas

  • The Burglar and the Whatsit, Donald E. Westlake - Short and clever, got great style.
  • Dancing Dan’s Christmas, Damon Runyon - Enjoyable. Nothing unexpected.
  • A Visit from St. Nicholas, Ron Goulart - Cute style, decent use of irony.
  • The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing, Thomas Hardy - Solid tale, not really a mystery. Almost fairy tale style.
  • Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas, John Mortimer - Ugh. I guess youre supposed to enjoy the humor and ignore the horrid classism.
  • A Reversible Santa Claus, Meredith Nicholson - Longest story so far, pretty enjoyable.

These were mostly pretty fun, with a couple of exceptions. The Thomas Hardy piece was fine, I guess, but it was so different. It follows a man who is waylaid on the road, and then he manages to expose the burglars in the midst of performing a second robbery. The points of the plot are very strange, and it has more in common with most fairy tales than most mysteries. The Rumpole story is another case of ‘wow, I have zero desire now to read anything else about that character’. It would be one thing if the style or the plot was good enough to make it worth slogging through, but it’s all about lawyers bartering over a case only for their own sakes, and with no care at all for the actual people involved. Wikipedia says that the character is characterized by sympathy for the ‘criminal classes’, but I’m not sure I saw that here.

I expected to enjoy "Dancing Dan’s Christmas", and I did, although anyone who isn’t already familiar with the work of Damon Runyon would surely get more out of it than I did. "A Visit from St Nichola"s opens with this line, “THE MEDIA, AS USUAL, GOT IT completely wrong. The corpse in the Santa Claus suit hadn’t been the victim of a mugging and therefore wasn’t an all too obvious symbol of what’s wrong with our decaying society.” It’s pretty fun throughout.

"The Burglar and the Whatsit" may now be one of my favorite examples of the ‘burglar dressed as Santa Claus’ trope. "A Reversible Santa Claus" is the longest story in the book so far, a tale of a family of retired criminals accidentally kidnapping a baby and then getting tangled in the affairs of the upper class family he belongs to.

I’m not that surprised the the comedy stories were a bit more fun than the ‘traditional’ stories, but I am really looking forward to some of what’s still to come.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part one)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries
editor: Otto Penzler, 2013

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Shall we begin?

Section One: A Traditional Little Christmas

I actually need to start with a general formatting note. I am not a huge fan of the way the biographies of the authors are presented. Each story is prefaced by a quick explanation of the standing or fame of the author, often including whatever work they are most famous for, and the source of the story. Honestly, I’d rather simply have the source of the story and save the plaudits for afterward or the footnotes.

I started to skip or skim these pages after the third time that I felt disappointed by a bait-and-switch. For example, from the bio I see that such and such an author was famous for his comedies, but I discover upon reading that this piece is a drama. Or this one is known for this character, who stars in stories known for this style, but the story that follows has nothing to do with either of those things.

I would like either more context about why this particular story is important or less context about other works of the author before reading, and in the absence of magic editing powers, I’ll keep skipping them unless I have a question.

Okay, back on track, let’s run through the first group of stories. I’m sorry to say we don’t get off to a great start.

  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie - Cute, but unnecessarily convoluted.
  • Gold, Frankincense and Murder, Catherine Aird - Fine, a bit dry.
  • Boxing Unclever, Robert Barnard - Pleasant enough, the style is tangled.
  • The Proof of the Pudding, Peter Lovesey - Dark and savage, very nice.
  • The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll, Ellery Queen - Can’t say I think much of this.
  • Morse's Greatest Mystery, Colin Dexter - Maybe this is better with context. As it is, far too saccharine.
  • More than Flesh and Blood, Susan Moody - First one with any real style. Ending’s a bit flat.
  • The Butler’s Christmas Eve, Mary Roberts Rinehart - I'm not sure why it ends so suddenly. Other than that I liked it, very evocative.
  • The Trinity Cat, Ellis Peters - Best of the lot.

The ones I liked the most in this section were: "The Proof of the Pudding", which is a dark story about a family where horrible abuse is going on, and how one person twists a Christmas tradition to save the innocents, and "The Trinity Cat", which is a lighter story about how a cat’s odd behavior leads to the solving of a murder-robbery.

"More than Flesh and Blood" had nice style, although the Christmas connections were a little thin. It wasn’t much of a mystery, either, just a dark story about a man looking for the truth of his family and making a dark discovery. "The Butler’s Christmas Eve" was pretty decent, too, although I think the end is supposed to be a twist, and I’m not sure what I was supposed to get out of it.

Despite some nice turns of phrase, I was the most disappointed with "The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll" and "Morse's Greatest Mystery", both stories starring the respective author’s most famous character. Both of these were dated in a tedious way and seem to require foreknowledge of the characters to get any enjoyment out of them. And from these samples, I am not in the least bit interested in knowing more about these characters. Similarly, "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" is a Hercule Poirot story, and it’s dull but not nearly so annoying.

Those Who Hunt the Night

Monday, October 27, 2014

Those Who Hunt the Night
Barbara Hambly, 1988

Premise: James Asher is a professor. He knows a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about linguistics and anthropology. He is also a retired player of the Great Game. This is why, when Simon Ysidro demands his help, Asher’s first response is to notice his unique accent. His second is notice that Ysidro isn’t breathing. Ysidro needs Asher to help him find out who is killing the vampires of London. Asher just needs to not get killed.

A little fun with vampires for Halloween.

I feel like it would be a little unusual today to see a novel that deals so well with the potential ambiguity of vampires. Even if they once were human, and retain some human qualities, that just makes them, at best, as untrustworthy as humans. Even when he becomes engrossed in the problem for its own sake, Asher never forgets that Ysidro might turn on him, or stops thinking about options should he need to turn on them.

These are dangerous predators. Asher is blackmailed into helping Ysidro try to discover the killer, even though most of the vampires would just as soon ignore the problem and kill Asher.

This is a really fun novel. It took me a while to get over how many annoying times James’ wife Lydia is described as a waifish beauty… but it’s in tone for the style of the time the book is set in. Plus she’s actually a medical researcher, and pretty great. It’s set in the early 20th century, shortly after the publication of Dracula, naturally. The characters are intriguing and the plot twists mostly satisfying. One of the biggest reveals was such a surprise to me, though, I had a little trouble following. Even so, the ending was great.

A solid thriller/mystery with some appropriately scary monsters.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Fountains of Paradise

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Fountains of Paradise
Arthur C. Clarke, 1979

Hugo Winner - 1980

Premise: Vannevar Morgan has a vision. He is already the most acclaimed architect of his generation, but now he wants to help man climb to the stars in the first space elevator. The only thing in his way is the monastery sitting on top of the ideal building location.

The Fountains of Paradise begins with a flashback to the ancient story of King Kalidasa (a fictionalized version of Kashyapa I who terrorized his enemies and built a massive tribute to his own power, in sight of the proposed site of the elevator. The book, on a certain level, is all about men’s efforts to make a mark on history, to build something that will outlast them.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. Like Rendezvous With Rama, it does a nice job of balancing the intricacies of theory around the technology with the human stories of the people interacting with it. It’s not a book for those that need their stories to be purely character driven. We observe Vannevar and the other characters from close enough to sympathize and be engaged with their stories, but never connect to them on a very deep level.

Another theme that I enjoyed centered on the relationship between the continued existence of religion and gaining new knowledge, particularly knowledge of extraterrestrial life. It’s only sort of tied to the rest of the book, and it’s (sadly) not terribly believable these days, but it’s a pleasant subplot, posing a fairly utopian outcome.

I’ve found both Hugo-winners I’ve read by Clarke so far to be excellent palate-cleansers: intellectual puzzles and intriguing worlds make a nice break from books (or movies/tv) full of over-the-top romance, angst, and strife. Fountains has its life-or-death moments, but they aren’t emotionally exhausting to read.

I found this book very solidly satisfying, and I’ll have to make room for some more Clarke in my to-read pile.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners