Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

Two years ago I purchased a copy of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited and with an introduction by Otto Penzler. It is one of those huge books– around 650 pages with two columns per page, and 60 stories. I don't really like reading large books like that, too awkward, but every year now I pull it out and read a few of the stories.

A quote from Penzler's introduction:
Mystery fiction set during the Christmas season has been with us for a long time, and it is astonishing how many authors have turned their pens and wicked thoughts to this time of year. Perhaps this is because violence seems so out of character, so inappropriate, for this time of year that it takes on extra weight. Think of how often terrible events have been recounted with the sad or angry exclamation, "and at Christmas time!"

These are the stories I read and enjoyed this year.

“Dead on Christmas Street” by John D. MacDonald

A police detective investigates a murder with his girlfriend, who just happens to be the DA's secretary, in the days leading up to Christmas. A clever and entertaining story. Not Christmassy but with descriptions of decorations on the streets, which I enjoyed.

A woman who worked in an office 17 stories up has just fallen to the pavement, into the rush of Christmas shoppers...
Some of the spectators, laden with tinsel- and evergreen-decorated packages, turned away, suppressing a nameless guilt. 
But the curious stayed on. Across the street, in the window of a department store, a vast mechanical Santa rocked back and forth, slapping a mechanical hand against a padded thigh, roaring forever, “Whawhaw ho ho ho. Whawhaw ho ho ho.” The slapping hand had worn the red plush from the padded thigh. 
The ambulance arrived... Wet snow fell into the city. And there was nothing else to see. The corner Santa, a leathery man with a pinched, blue nose, began to ring his hand bell again.
“Dead on Christmas Street” was first published in the December 20, 1952, issue of Collier's. The story is featured at The Trap of Solid Gold, Steve Scott's blog devoted to celebrating the works of John D MacDonald. The post has an illustration from the story as published in Collier's.

"A Reversible Santa Claus" by Meredith Nicholson

This was a new discovery for me, a story from 1917. The story begins...
Mr. William B. Aikins, alias "Softy" Hubbard, alias Billy The Hopper, paused for breath behind a hedge that bordered a quiet lane and peered out into the highway at a roadster whose tail light advertised its presence to his felonious gaze. It was Christmas Eve, and after a day of unseasonable warmth a slow, drizzling rain was whimsically changing to snow. 
The Hopper was blowing from two hours' hard travel over rough country. He had stumbled through woodlands, flattened himself in fence corners to avoid the eyes of curious motorists speeding homeward or flying about distributing Christmas gifts, and he was now bent upon committing himself to an inter-urban trolley line that would afford comfortable transportation for the remainder of his journey. Twenty miles, he estimated, still lay between him and his domicile.
This is a long short story, really novelette length. Billy the Hopper is a retired thief who has settled down on a chicken farm with his wife (a retired shoplifter) and another retired criminal who has expertise in the care and feeding of poultry. One night he succumbs to an ill-advised impulse, and takes a roadster parked in front of a cottage. He soon discovers that the unattended car contained a small child, a 2 year old boy. Now Billy has to figure out how to return the child to his family without going back to prison. This is a fun, old-fashioned story.

Per the preface to the story:
ALONG WITH BOOTH TARKINGTON , George Ade, and the poet James Whitcomb Riley, Meredith Nicholson was part of what was regarded as the Golden Age of literature in Indiana in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Although not an author whose works have stood the test of time well, he was a bestseller in his day whose fiction was governed by the invariable triumph of love and by insistence on the virtues of wholesome, bourgeois life, always told with good-natured humor. “A Reversible Santa Claus” was first published as a slim, illustrated book of that title (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1917).
“Death on Christmas Eve” by Stanley Ellin

This story was not my favorite but it certainly is atmospheric. It is the formidable and harsh story of a brother whose wife has died and the sister he lives with. It was first published in the January 1950 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Moira at Clothes in Books has also covered this story.

This year I read two stories that featured cats.

In "The Trinity Cat" by Ellis Peters, a lop-eared church cat helps a detective in his investigations.

Using the name Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter wrote two series of mysteries, the Cadfael Mysteries set in the twelfth century and the George Felse series. This story was first published in Winter's Crimes #8 (London, Macmillan, 1976).

"The Christmas Kitten" by Ed Gorman is another long story with chapter divisions featuring characters from Gorman's series about lawyer Sam McCain and Judge Eleanor Whitney, and set in the 1950's. Each title in the series is the title of a song from that time.

The kitten is incidental to the story and does not solve the crime, but is a very nice touch. I enjoyed revisiting these characters, if only briefly, and must get back to reading the series. “The Christmas Kitten” was first published in the January 1997 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Last year I noted several Christmas stories I read in this book in this post.


col2910 said...

Sounds like a great collection to dip in and out of, but I don't need it, even if I do like the sound of some of what you have described

Rick Robinson said...

I too bought this a couple of years ago and have read some in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Seems we are about the same distance in. I expect to finish it next Christmas season. It's one of four short story collections I'm currently working on, including HOLMES FOR CHRISTMAS.

Peggy said...

This has been in my wishlist for several years! I need to just get it.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a great choice for sampling at this time of year, Tracy. And just from the names you've mentioned, it sounds as though there are some fine authors represented here. Glad you enjoyed the bits you read.

TracyK said...

It is a good mix of stories and authors, Col.

TracyK said...

I have been kind of skipping around in the book, Rick, checking out authors I am interested in. I do hope to get back to more short story collections in 2018.

TracyK said...

I agree, Peggy, it is really worth it.

TracyK said...

It is a good one, Margot, and it has so many stories. I have some other Christmas short story collections but this year I only read from this book.

Mathew Paust said...

Love that cover--and it looks familiar!

Rick Robinson said...

That should have been HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS. For some reason a lot of short story collections have been jumping into my hands this Fall and Winter.

TracyK said...

I have heard good things about that collection, Rick. I think I need to read more of the original Sherlock Holmes stories before I read these, but there are some authors there I want to read more by.

TracyK said...

It is a very nice cover, Matt. I thought I had read something about it earlier so I looked it up. It features a painting by Al Parker from an issue of The Country Home (February 1938). I guess they added the gun in her hand.

Clothes In Books said...

Happy Christmas to you and yours Tracy, and best wishes for 2018. Festive crime reading is a taste we share, so I always particularly enjoy your entries at this time of the year - and we coincided with the Ellin! I got two books of crime short stories this year, and am looking forward to trying them out.

TracyK said...

Thanks and Happy New Year greetings to you, Moira. I purchased a new book of Christmas stories by Connie Willis this year and will dip into that for next Christmas.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I'd like to read "Dead on Christmas Street" by John D. MacDonald, an author I like reading for his taut and gripping prose. "The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries" sounds awfully familiar; I probably read about it somewhere.

TracyK said...

Prashant, The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries came out in 2013, I think, and there were a lot of posts on it that year and the next. John D. Macdonald's story is very good.