Big Book of Christmas Mysteries – Part 2

If you’ve finished the first part of the BBoCM, turn to the second part, featuring “A Pulpy Little Christmas”, “An Uncanny Little Christmas”, “A Modern Little Christmas”, “A Puzzling Little Christmas”, and “A Classic Little Christmas”.  If you haven’t, well, get busy.

A Pulpy Little Christmas is fun.  Nothing long or involved, short spurts of dialogue, mostly set in the 40′s and 50′s.  Dead on Christmas Street by John MacDonald features blackmail, a mob boss and a gal Friday – Jane Raymer – who is perhaps the most enjoyable character in the story.  Crime’s Christmas Carol by Norvell Page is a little depressing.  It features a hard-luck couple, each doing something a little foolish (if not illegal) to bring the other some Christmas joy.  Unlike the tone of the story, it ends with a pretty bow on top.  This one didn’t flow well, so if you are skimming, skip this one.  Serenade to a Killer by Joseph Commings was another story that I didn’t love.  It features an improbable “detective” — an overbearing, large Senator who swoops in to help constituents.  I didn’t find that I cared enough about the victim or the suspects to get particularly involved, although the psychological twist in the story is enjoyable.

The “uncanny” stories were not particularly shocking.  Perhaps because our 24-hour news/entertainment TV cycle has numbed us to both the real and unreal.  But I did enjoy the tone and writing by Peter Lovesey in The Haunted Crescent.  Our narrator is a skeptic — invited by friends to spend the night in their “haunted” mansion on Christmas Eve (they are away).  It is reported that every Christmas Eve, a young woman ghost haunts the house.  Our narrator tells us an interesting history story about a tragic love story that is at least as interesting as the “current” story he finds himself in.  Nice twist ending.

A Christmas in Camp by Edmund Cox is small part murder mystery, large part entertaining story set in Victorian era India.  Our narrator, William Trench, is recalling a Christmas camp trip he took with his new wife, his commanding officer (Mr. Carruthers) and another family.  It involves native superstition, a ghostly apparition and a sort of karma-like tale of redemption and gratitude.  A bit dated (and not at all “PC” in the description of native tradition and culture), but also light and still on point with its description of marriage.

A Wreath for Marley by Max Allan Collins is a mash-up of A Christmas Carol  and The Maltese Falcon, complete with a dead partner,  his ne’er-do-well bombshell of a wife, and the ghost of John Dillinger (which, apparently, is pronounced with a hard “g” as in “gun”; according to the ghost).  The story is quite a bit longer than the others in the book and it is (for me) the most enjoyable of the stories in this section — equal parts redemption and grit.

The “scary” section stories do have a harder edge to them.  They aren’t the cozy, off-stage murder in the country home type stories.  In the first, The Carol Singers by Josephine Bell, we are privy to the sad story of an elderly woman, left alone for the holidays.  She is visited by some children caroling, then the second set of “carolers” are really burglars who violently beat her, steal things and leave her for dead.  Her valuable jewels are not stolen but are lost (she hung them as ornaments on her little tree that was thrown in the trash after the police cleared the crime scene).  The mysteries of the murder and the lost jewels are eventually solved, but I was left with a great sadness after reading this story.

My favorite story in this section is The 74th Tale by Jonathan Santlofer.  Our narrator is pretty warped and ends up doing some horrible things, but the tone of writing (and reporting) is highly entertaining. — kind of how I would imagine Holden Caulfield would report to you if he had engaged in some horrible acts, instead of just going to some parties and generally be bored with phonies.  We are slowly brought in to the story, sparked by a book purchased in the Mysterious Bookshop:

I got it [the book] at this place called the Mysterious Bookshop.  Woo, woo, right?  Like it should have been Halloween, not Christmas.  What lured me in were the books in the window, all of those titles with death and murder and blood, which is not something I think about all the time, just on occasion like most people.

You get the idea.  It all starts with a book.  Our narrator often expresses thoughts (including the above) which you think – “Hey.  That could be me!”  But then, he goes a step further and (hopefully) you think – “Oh hell no.  That isn’t me.”

The “account” of the crime we get towards the end of the story is gripping.  Read this one!

The “surprising” section lags a bit.  Tales of island ship wrecks, a fall down the stairs.  Most of the stories are blurry and rambling in tone. I did enjoy the plot of The Chinese Apple by Joseph Shearing.  Truly a good one.  But, his protagonist, Isabelle Crosland, just came across as a whiny twit.  I couldn’t have cared a whit what happened to her and couldn’t figure out why she was so depressed at just having to leave her beloved Florence to set foot in England.  But, anyway, I did enjoy the story and you will as well.

The “modern” section isn’t that modern, but it isn’t trapped in Victorian England either, so perhaps the section deserves its name.  An Early Christmas by Doug Allyn is enjoyable.  We definitely have a mystery that was somewhat unpredictable.  Worth the effort to get through this longish offering.

Three Dot Po by Sara Paretsky is great.  Probably because it is set in Chicago and Peretsky’s description of a wintry, frozen Chicago lakefront was dead on, making me nostalgic and also very happy not to be facing those winters anymore.  The “mystery” isn’t too complex, but we get a nice intro into V.I. Warshawski, a female detective, former attorney, private eye, etc.  Even though one of her friends is killed at the beginning of the story, it doesn’t sink into despair and sadness.  Enjoyable, quick read.

In the “puzzling” section, I enjoyed That’s the Ticket by Mary Higgins Clark.  It was part cautionary tale, part get rich quick scheme, part Dynasty drama, part mystery.  How many parts is that?  It wasn’t really “puzzling” — pretty easy to solve the mystery — and the main character, Ernie, is kind of doofy.  But somehow, the reader is still rooting for him.  Light mystery, and a good one at that.

Ngaio Marsh makes an appearance in the book with Death on the Air, and her appearance is a little too late for me.  Marsh has an excellent ability to lay out the crime, the scene and the characters — unmatched, really.  We dislike Septimus Tonks from page one and we are kind of rooting for the mystery of his murder to go unsolved.  But, solved it is by Alleyn, albeit not in the most satisfying way.  I love her descriptions, particularly of the house and the rooms in it.  If you haven’t read her before, start with this!

The Christmas Kitten by Ed Gorman is also enjoyable.  It reads kind of like a weekly cop show — I was casting it in my head.  McCain is relatable in his crush on Pamela, his hassles with work and his somewhat labored efforts at solving the crime.  But he does and in a classic move, with a little twist.

Finally, we end with some “classics”.  I love, love, love Nero Wolfe stories, and we are treated to a pretty long one in Christmas Party by Rex Stout.  If you are a fan, this one won’t disappoint.  If you haven’t tried a Nero Wolfe story yet, please do.  Sidekick, Archie, tries to pull a prank on Nero (Archie tells Nero that he is getting married (?!!) and, thus, cannot drive him to Long Island to look at orchids) which leads to all manner of confusion.  We are treated to pouting, blackmail, poisoning, mistaken identify, false arrest and, finally, the final showdown among the cast of characters in Nero’s office.  This, alone, was worth the book!

So, there you have it.  The BBoCM is a must for mystery readers this time of year.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll be sorry to finish it.  Happy reading!