Monday, June 1, 2015

Yuletide Mayhem

Edited by Thomas Godfrey with illustrations by Gahan Wilson.
Avenal Books.
1982. 465 pages: 26 stories.
For sale HERE.
Somehow criminality and Christmas have a perverse affinity for one another, as amply demonstrated in Thomas Godfrey's Murder for Christmas (1982; reprinted 2007). Some of the finest mystery authors regard the Yuletide season as the perfect opportunity for crime; real life criminals concur, since there is known to be a spike in property theft, including pickpocketing, whenever crowds gather at that time of the year.

Sadly, for some people this joyous season could prove so depressing that they contemplate more serious actions (e.g., "Back for Christmas," "Mother's Milk," "Christmas Party," "Death on the Air," "Markheim," and hilariously in "Ring Out, Wild Bells"); but more often the criminal impulse finds expression in simple theft—essentially stealing gifts instead of receiving them (e.g., "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding," "Dancing Dan's Christmas," "The Adventure of the Dauphin's Doll," and many others in this anthology).

The stories:

(1) "Back for Christmas" (John Collier): You've heard of "the perfect murder," haven't you? The killer here believes he's thought of everything—but he fails to allow for seemingly trivial, mundane matters . . . and love. Filmed for TV (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) in 1956 with John Williams.

(2) "Mr. Big" (Woody Allen): Existentialist private eye Kaiser Lupowitz gets hired to find God, and he does—on a slab in the morgue.

(3) "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle): Holmes and Watson get embroiled in what Holmes wrongly assumes to be "only one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles" — but which finally proves to be of supreme importance. Filmed for TV (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) in 1984 with Jeremy Brett.

(4) "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" (Agatha Christie): A reluctant Hercule Poirot is persuaded to spend "an old-fashioned English Christmas" at an old-fashioned English country estate—but, with what looks like murder and the theft of a red (not blue) carbuncle, the occasion proves to be anything but traditional. Filmed for TV (Agatha Christie's Poirotas "The Theft of the Royal Ruby" in 1991 with David Suchet.

(5) "Dancing Dan's Christmas" (Damon Runyon): These three guys get the Christmas spirit the easy way—after several hours of downing Tom and Jerrys, which nobody is sure what is in them, and getting totally soused—and this one guy decides he will be Santa Claus and shower his favorite doll's grandma with sparklers, which nobody knows where they came from, but it is easy to see they cannot be legit. Filmed for TV in 1955 with Broderick Crawford.

(6) "Cambric Tea" (Marjorie Bowen): A young doctor must endure a harrowing Christmas in a gloomy mansion attending a man who insists that his wife is slowly poisoning him with his tea. Matters are worsened by the fact that this older man's wife was once the doctor's sweetheart and, despite the lapse of time, he still loves her. The existence of undated love letters, coupled with the strong possibility his patient could well die in his care, would make the doctor the prime suspect should the worst come to pass.

(7) "Death on Christmas Eve" (Stanley Ellin): In the long, dark night of the soul, time passes slowly—or not at all. Between them, a brother and sister share a memory of murder that will never, ever die.

(8) "A Christmas Tragedy" (Baroness Orczy): When there is a murder in Yorkshire and a young man is arrested on purely circumstantial evidence, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard sets a trap for the real killer.

(9) "Silent Night" (Baynard Kendrick): Blind private detective Duncan Maclain is enlisted by the F.B.I. to assist in a kidnapping case that involves national security. It's through Maclain's highly developed sense of hearing and a nice bit of logical inference that the kidnappers are thwarted—as well as the unwitting clues provided by the agreeable crooning of Bing Crosby and the incessant murmur of running water.

(10) "The Stolen Christmas Box" (Lillian de la Torre): Dr. Samuel Johnson, accompanied by his faithful biographer Boswell, is making most merry indeed during a country Christmas when a valuable diamond goes missing, and it falls to Johnson to recover it, a knotty cypher notwithstanding.

(11) "A Chaparral Christmas Gift" (O. Henry): The Frio Kid, as wanton and ruthless a man killer as ever lived, in a moment of weakness for an old flame succumbs to the Christmas spirit, with fateful—and fatal—results.

(12) "Death on the Air" (Ngaio Marsh): The body of Septimus Tonks — "a damned unpleasant sort of a man," attests his doctor — is found slumped over his wireless ("radio" to us colonials) on a dreary Christmas morn, prompting the presence of Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who in short order determines that the wireless itself is the murder weapon. If only it were as easy to determine the killer . . . .

(13) "Inspector Ghote and the Miracle Baby" (H. R. F. Keating): Ghote's latest assignment is one he dreads very much: to discover the true paternity of a child whose mother steadfastly denies she—well, you know. Unless he can resolve it soon, Ghote fears—as does his boss—that an eruption of religious fervor, closely followed by religious conflict, could result in multi-ethnic Bombay.

(14) "Maigret's Christmas" (Georges Simenon): As Sherlock Holmes had already discovered, seemingly trivial events can balloon into matters of the utmost importance; Inspector Maigret will come to appreciate this fact all the more when a bed-ridden little girl will witness Father Christmas bafflingly prising up the floorboards in her room, leading Maigret into a cold case of blackmail and murder.

(15) "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" (Charles Dickens): A murder trial with a difference: the ghost of the victim haunting the courtroom and influencing the outcome, always just beyond everyone's ken, except for the foreman, who for some reason is vouchsafed sight beyond sight.

(16) "The Adventure of the Dauphin's Doll" (Ellery Queen): Ellery matches wits with a master thief calling himself Comus. A child's doll worth over a hundred thousand dollars is to be displayed all day long in a crowded department store on Christmas Eve, and Comus anonymously lets Ellery know he intends to steal it. Unfortunately for EQ, while there are eight million stories in the naked city, that also means there are eight million suspects.

(17) "Markheim" (Robert Louis Stevenson): "Meanwhile, and behind all this activity, brute terrors, like the scurrying of rats in a deserted attic, filled the more remote chambers of his brain with riot; the hand of the constable would fall heavy on his shoulder, and his nerves would jerk like a hooked fish; or he beheld, in galloping defile, the dock, the prison, the gallows, and the black coffin."

(18) "The Necklace of Pearls" (Dorothy L. Sayers): What is it about missing gemstones and Christmas time? Only, in this instance there are twenty-one of them unaccounted for, a houseful of guests to suspect of stealing them, and but one Lord Peter Wimsey to nab the culprit.

(19) "Blind Man's Hood" (Carter Dickson): It's a long trip up from London for a young couple planning on spending Christmas with friends in the country. Upon their arrival they discover a house brightly lit but empty of people, save for a vaguely unsettling young woman with a story to tell of happenings here long ago, a story about unrequited love, of calculated cruelty, and murder.

(20) "Christmas Is for Cops" (Edward D. Hoch): Even at the best of times Captain Leopold's job isn't easy; but now that he suspects one of his men of being on the take, the Yuletide isn't quite as bright as usual. At the annual policemen's Christmas party, the crooked cop is found murdered, confirming to Leopold there's another man in the department who's also working with local criminals. Things are further complicated by the fact that somewhere in or around the Christmas tree lurks a vital piece of evidence that would break the case wide open—but just what form it's in is a mystery in itself.

(21) "The Thieves Who Couldn't Help Sneezing" (Thomas Hardy): An uncharacteristically light-hearted story from this author about a young man turning the tables on three highwaymen.

(22) "The Case Is Altered" (Margery Allingham): Albert Campion has been invited to spend Christmas amid a throng of guests at one of England's stately homes, his good friend Lance Feering, a hopeless romantic, being among them. As it turns out, Lance's presence will prove to be pivotal in Campion's efforts to thwart a scheme of national importance.

(23) "Christmas Party" (Rex Stout): Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe's brash but capable assistant, mortifies his boss with news that he's engaged to be married, and has the certificate to prove it. The loss of such an efficient legman would be incalculable to the corpulent and sedentary Wolfe, and he doesn't take it well. Meanwhile, Archie attends a Christmas party with his "fiancee," her boss, and several associates—but death is also present, when one of them drops dead from poison in his champagne. While everyone naturally falls under suspicion, Archie included, the prime suspect—Santa Claus, no less—vanishes not up a chimney but down an elevator.

(24) "The Flying Stars" (G. K. Chesterton): The holiday festivities are in full swing at the estate of one of England's wealthiest men. An impromptu pantomime is underway, yet no one suspects a theft of three invaluable precious stones is even now being carried out right in front of their eyes—no one except a nondescript little priest named Brown.

(25) "Mother's Milk" (James Mines): There's an old saying that if life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Chafing at being repressed, ignored, unappreciated, and subservient, one man decides to make warm milk—laced with poison—instead.

(26) "Ring Out, Wild Bells" (D. B. Wyndham Lewis): Everything has its limits, including Yuletide merriment, as the assorted guests at Merryweather Hall discover—but to say more would be a fruitless attempt at giving shape to the indescribable and comprehensibility to the irrational.

Note: The Mysterious Press released a mass market paperback edition in 1988, which was broken into two separate volumes; the second volume includes a story by Anton Chekhov that wasn't in the 1982 hardback or the 2007 reprint.

- Thomas Godfrey is also responsible for editing the marvelous companion to Murder for Christmas, English Country House Murders, available on HERE.
- Two other books, both novels, of Yuletide mayhem that you might enjoy are Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (also known as Murder for Christmas) for sale HERE and Charlotte MacLeod's Rest You Merry available HERE.

Category: Crime fiction (Christmas department)

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