Step into a world where tinsel and crime intertwine as the festive season takes a mysterious and sometimes murderous turn in Who Killed Father Christmas? and Other Seasonal Mysteries. The fifth Christmassy collection from Martin Edwards and the British Library, it includes 15 short crime stories set during the holidays and written by some of the best in the genre. Interestingly, rather than focusing on stories from the Golden Age like previous collections, the stories this time around were published between 1911 and 1995.
In the title story – Who Killed Father Christmas? by Patricia Moyes – a Christmas contretemps unfolds when the stand-in Santa in the toy department of one of London’s grandest department stores is found stabbed to death. Originally published in 1980 but with a somewhat older sensibility and a setting reminiscent of Grace Brothers, the story relies more on verbal sparring and wit than on action and intrigue. Moyes doesn’t exactly play fair, but she certainly crafts a decent puzzle.
While Moyes is sadly not as well-known now as she deserves to be, several of those featured in the collection have remained popular or enjoyed a recent renaissance, including J Jefferson Farjeon. His Secrets in the Snow follows a young woman as she abandons a snowbound motor-coach and sets out to walk to a much anticipated party. Along the way, she encounters puzzles and peril aplenty. With echoes of the substance and ambience of Farjeon’s Mystery in White, which helped kick-start the Christmassy crime resurgence, there are a number of good clues to unravel.
While Farjeon neglects the much-loved staple of crime fiction that is the hazardous train journey in his contribution, two other authors embrace it in their stories. In On the Irish Mail, Garnett Radcliffe explains how a young man’s desire to get home for Christmas at any cost leaves him entangled in a complex caper, while in The Christmas Train, Will Scott relates how Jeremiah Jones, the Laughing Crook, arranges a heist on a moving train being monitored by the police. Despite approaching crime from different directions, the two stories are equally clever and engaging.
Turning back to the big names, John Dickson Carr’s Scotland Yard’s Christmas centres on the seemingly impossible disappearance of a crook from a phone booth in an Oxford Street department store. The man was never out of sight of the police but still managed to vanish, and then a short while later, his lady friend pulled off exactly the same trick. The premise is excellent, although Carr’s explanation of the disappearances is somewhat lacking, so Edwards has chosen to include some additional explanation from Carr scholar Doug Green.
Another well-known name is (almost) found in Frank Howel Evans’ The Christmas Thief, although it’s not the author’s. Two down-on-their-luck young men save a wealthy gent from being mugged and then find themselves embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy. It’s a particularly action-packed short story compared with the others in the collection, but it’s most notable for featuring Jules Poiret, “late of the French Secret Service”. Poiret made his debut 10 years before Agatha Christie’s similarly named Belgian sleuth – odd coincidence or something more?
Even more odd is Vincent Cornier’s Among Those Present Was Santa Claus, which takes place during a Christmas party at an isolated country house. It’s certainly a promising setup for a crime, which is just what Lord Betwode intended when he arranged the gathering. He’s been troubled by a serial burglar and intends to unmask the culprit during a bespoke parlour game. It makes for an entertaining read, but either Betwode or Cornier must have started on the Christmas sherry early, as it’s never clear how the plan was actually supposed to work.
And speaking of Christmas spirits, ghost stories have been popular during the festive season since Jacob Marley first rattled his chains, so it’s fitting that Edwards has included three seasonal supernatural tales. Anthony Gilberts’ The Christmas Spirit takes place during the reopening of The Green Girl, a remote pub in East Anglia said to be haunted by the second Lady Dunscombe, who met an unfortunate end at the hand of her dastardly husband. The crime is somewhat tangential in this story, but it’s atmospheric and delightfully spooky.
Far more creepy is Glyn Daniel’s Death at Christmas, in which an Oxbridge don relates the remarkable story of a colleague who kept up a peculiar yuletide tradition in the years following his wife’s death in a car accident. Of course, the truth is far more complicated than that and, while there’s no crime to solve per se, it’s a distinctly macabre and disturbing story with a sting in the tail.
Equally spine-chilling if more firmly grounded in reality is The Grey Monk by Gerald Vernier, which sees series detective Superintendent Robert Budd (and sad-sack sidekick Sergeant Leek) called to investigate the murder of Sir Isaac Lewin’s butler. The man was apparently killed by a spectral monk, although Budd immediately suspects that something far more sinister is afoot. Vernier is another who doesn’t exactly play fair, meaning that not all the clues available to Budd are brought out before the final denouement, but there’s a neat puzzle to solve.
Returning to this astral plane, Catherine Aird’s Gold, Frankincense, and Murder follows reluctant Christmas guest Henry Tyler as he helps investigate the death of a pharmacist who died following a meal at his sister’s house. Was it food poisoning or something more sinister? While there are a couple of solid clues, Tyler’s deductions reflect Aird’s excellent character study, which is what really elevates the story and enhances an approach beloved of amateur sleuths from the Golden Age.
The Bird of Dawning by Michael Gilbert features Henry Bohun, the insomnolent hero of Smallbone Deceased, whose sleeplessness means that he is first on the scene following the apparent suicide of a fellow guest at Vambrill Court. Bohun was spending Christmas there in an effort to help unmask the dead man as an embezzler, although he soon discovers that there is far more going on. The character development might not be the best, but there is plenty for Bohun to untangle.
Finally, while the British Library anthologies always feature top-notch rarities, not every story can appeal to every person, and there is often a story (or two) that could perhaps have remained forgotten. In this case, it’s Ellis Peters’ A Present for Ivo and Peter Todd’s Herlock Sholmes’ Christmas Case that can’t quite live up to the rest. The former is an overly drawn out thriller in which the guilty party is clear almost from the outset, while the latter is a pastiche in which the forced jokes generally fall flat.
As a whole, Who Killed Father Christmas? and Other Seasonal Mysteries stands out due to the majority of stories capturing the festive spirit while maintaining the pull of a good mystery. From the twinkling lights of Christmas trees to the bustling streets adorned with decorations, the setting is always an integral part of the story, and the inclusion of the traditions and atmosphere of the festive season somehow enhances the nefariousness of the crimes.
British Library Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
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