Crimson Snow – edited by Martin Edwards
Christmas is coming. The geese I regularly pass in a field on the M40 are getting fatter and wearing an increasingly worried expression on their face. Christmas is a time for relatives and friends to gather, celebrate and fall out. Some might even resort to murder. Dastardly deeds over the festive period make up the common theme of this delightful collection of eleven stories, carefully and lovingly curated by Martin Edwards.
As with anthologies of this type there is a mix of familiar authors – in particular, Margery Allingham and Edgar Wallace – and more obscure writers who have been lost in the mists of time. The length and quality of the stories also varies, a couple take over an hour to read each and others show some signs of their vintage. There is even a play; Christmas Eve by S C Roberts is a Holmesian parody in which the winsome Violet de Vinne consults Conan Doyle’s creation about Lady Barton’s missing pearls and makes quite an impression on poor Watson.
The weather we traditionally associate with Christmas, thick snow, features in a number of stories, marooning the house party, as in Victor Gunn’s Death in December, and allowing Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell and his sidekick, Johnny Lister, to solve the mystery without the suspects having the opportunity to make good their escape. In one story we encounter a group of malicious carol singers who commit a dastardly crime but their elderly victim has the foresight to hang her most valuable jewels on the boughs of her Christmas tree. As you would expect, a couple of stories feature Father Christmas, the interchange of costumes in one story giving the felon the opportunity to commit his crime.
Ghosts are also associated with Christmas and seasonal spectres make appearances in a number of stories. Perhaps the best story in the collection is Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch in which the narrator spends the holiday season in a haunted house. Inevitably, the ghost makes an appearance but not all is as it seems and the ghost is a means to divert the direction of an inheritance. What the story lacks in subtlety of plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere and tension.
Another of my favourites is Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings, perhaps because it has an insurance-related theme and it demonstrates that those of us who worked in the industry may have enjoyed a good lifestyle but we were never off duty. Mr Cork is an underwriter and is following up on a theft of some jewels that his office had underwritten. Inevitably, there is a corpse involved and the finely attuned grey cells of Cork eventually get to the bottom of the mystery. One of the unusual features of the story was that it was originally a competition piece and Hastings held back some vital revelations as a challenge for his readership. Edwards prints the story as it originally appeared but at the back of the book provides the missing information together with the winner’s suggestions. A nice touch.
On the whole, I found this collection less satisfying than others from the same stable, perhaps because the Christmas theme, although offering a range of possibilities, ultimately is a bit restrictive. Writing Christmas stories is more of a money-spinning exercise than anything else and perhaps as a consequence the quality of the writing it engenders is more variable. But, as always, there is enough to keep you interested and entertained.
Whether it has made me anticipate Christmas more keenly is another story!