When Akylina and I met up in Edinburgh at the end of November, we decided to purchase two copies of Murder Under the Christmas Tree to read together. With essay deadlines and the like, our collaboration didn’t quite go to plan, but I thought I’d post my review of the book regardless. I decided to open it on the first of December and read one of the ten stories per day, as a kind of constructive advent treat.
With regard to crime novels, cosy crime is definitely my favourite sub-genre; I adore authors such as Agatha Christie and Edmund Crispin, and will always seek them out over contemporary thrillers (much as I’ll admit that I tend to enjoy these too, I’m generally not that surprised by the plot twists, as I feel that a lot of them follow the same – or at least very similar – guidelines). Whilst I had heard of a lot of the authors in this collection, there were a couple who were on my radar but whom I was not familiar with, and one (Carter Dickson) whom I hadn’t even heard of before.
I feel that the best way in which to approach such a collection is to give a mini review of each tale. Murder Under the Christmas Tree begins with Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Necklace of Pearls’, a clever tale in which a very rich, and not very well liked, man named Septimus Shale’s daughter has her precious pearl necklace stolen during a holiday gathering. Lord Peter Wimsey makes an appearance (of course), just happening as he does to be part of the festivities. The way in which Sayers writes is enjoyable, and she sets the scene perfectly throughout. The second story in the collection is Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Name on the Window’, which I very much enjoyed. In this Boxing Day mystery, which centres upon his famous creation of Oxford Don-cum-detective Gervase Fen, a recent murder is investigated. The locked-room variety of plot which has been used here is clever; not the best Fen story, but its workings and conclusion certainly suited the length of the piece.
Val McDermid’s ‘A Traditional Christmas’ catapults one from past decades to the present, and its opening sentence was reminiscent to me of Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful Rebecca: ‘Last night, I dreamed I went to Amberley’. This is where our female narrator’s wife was brought up in luxury. Again, the story deals with a murder. McDermid’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at points, but it has flashes of great humour within it, and any oddness which the tale holds is made up by the fact that it has been so well done. Next comes a classic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. I have read this before on numerous occasions, and still find it wonderfully clever. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Sherlock Holmes story, a rare and precious stone – the blue carbuncle of the title – has been placed within a goose, and subsequently lost.
‘The Invisible Man’ by G.K. Chesterton and ‘Cinders’ by Ian Rankin both have merit. The tales are very different from one another, but the contrast provided by their placing in the collection is memorable. In the former, which provided my first taste of Chesterton’s work, a spectre appears, and a mysterious note consequently shows itself upon the window of a shop in Camden Town. Chesterton’s prose is rich, and stylistically rather original. This Father Brown story takes on many issues about the perils of the modern world, and is entertaining from start to finish. In Rankin’s effort, the crux of the problem is immediately shown to the reader: ‘The Fairy Godmother was dead’. At an Edinburgh pantomime, the body is found, and Rebus is sent to investigate. The manner of the murder is simple, yet it demonstrates Rankin’s intelligence and clever plot twists, struck as she is by Cinderella’s slipper: ‘Not that it was a glass slipper. It was Perspex or something. And it wasn’t the one from the performance. The production kept two spares.’
‘Death on the Air’ provided my first glimpse into Ngaio Marsh’s work, and I very much enjoyed it. She immediately sets the scene, and I was reminded a little of Harry Potter: ‘On the 25th of December at 7:30am our Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set’. His body is discovered by the under-housemaid, and the investigation comes about when it is found that he was not accidentally electrocuted as first thought. After Marsh’s crafty tale, we come to ‘Persons or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson, which I must admit I didn’t much enjoy. The new owner of an old house in Sussex is convinced that it is haunted; he then tells a story from the 1660s which supposedly happened on the site. Whilst Dickson’s story marks a differentiation in the collection in some ways, I did not personally find it immediately interesting or engaging, and could have happily skipped past it. There was a curious distancing and framing here, and the monologue structure makes it rather dull and plodding.
Margery Allingham’s ‘The Case is Altered’ picked up the pace once more; as a penultimate tale, it fits perfectly. This particular Campion tale is wonderfully crafted, from its initial sentence – ‘Mr Albert Campion, sitting in a first-class smoking compartment, was just reflecting sadly that an atmosphere of stultifying decency could make even Christmas something of a stuffed-owl occasion, when a new hogskin suitcase of distinctive design hit him on the knees’ – to its plot, in which his contemporary, Lance, receives an anonymous letter instructing him to wait in the grounds one night. True to form, Campion is immediately suspicious. This is one of the only stories in the collection which does not deal with a murder, and it feels refreshing in consequence. The final tale, Ellis Peters’ ‘The Price of Light’, was a bit of a letdown in consequence. It does not feel overly grounded historically, despite the necessity of such a thing, being set in 1135 as it is. Whilst Peters’ story was well written, I did not find it captivating by any means, and am of the opinion that it jarred the whole collection; it did not fit with anything else within Murder Under the Christmas Tree, aside from the general theme of murder.
To conclude, Murder Under the Christmas Tree would have been utterly fantastic had it consisted solely of festive Golden Age crime fiction. As it is, the book is enjoyable enough, but a couple of the entries do tend to make the whole feel a touch disjointed. Regardless, it has finally given me the push I needed to incorporate Ngaio Marsh into my 2017 reading.