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‘Murder Under the Christmas Tree’, edited by Cecily Gayford ****

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.9781781257913

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.

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From Waterstones Birmingham’s blog

‘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.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of my foray into underrated books!  Which of these have you read?  Have you enjoyed this week’s post series?  Has it intrigued you to pick up anything a little different that you’ve not heard about before?

 

1. Miss Lulu Bett and Other Stories by Zona Gale
‘Lulu Bett lives in a small town with her sister Ina and Ina’s husband Dwight–a dentist who rules his household with self-righteous smugness. The unmarried Lulu has learned that she cannot question her role as chief cook, housekeeper, and gracious presence. But when Dwight’s sophisticated brother Ninian comes to visit, Lulu finds in herself a surprising wit–and the boldness to accept his playful proposal of marriage.
Through her appealing, determined heroine, Zona Gale satirically dispatches a sheaf of the social assumptions of her day, from male supremacy to the security of marriage. First published in 1920, Miss Lulu Bett was immediately acclaimed, and went on to become one of two bestselling novels of the year. Together with four of Gale’s short stories–including the O. Henry award-winning “Bridal Pond”–Miss Lulu Bett reflects Gale’s broad progressive interests and the fast-paced, affecting prose which made her one of the most popular writers of her time and a classic American storteller.’

 

97808028299622. Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers
‘One of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, Dorothy Sayers pursued her goals whether or not what she wanted to do was ordinarily understood to be “feminine.” Sayers did not devote a great deal of time to talking or writing about feminism, but she did explicitly address the issue of women’s role in society in the two classic essays collected here.  Central to Sayers’s reflections is the conviction that both men and women are first of all human beings and must be regarded as essentially much more alike than different. We are to be true not so much to our sex as to our humanity. The proper role of both men and women, in her view, is to find the work for which they are suited and to do it.  Though written several decades ago, these essays still offer in Sayers’s piquant style a sensible and conciliatory approach to ongoing gender issues.’

 

3. Quiver by Stephanie Spinner
‘It was Artemis, goddess of the hunt and mistress of the wild, who rescued the abandoned baby Atalanta, sending a she-bear to nurse her and a band of hunters to raise her in safety. Now sixteen, Atalanta, famous archer and swiftest mortal alive, has devoted her life to the goddess.  When strangers appear in Atalanta’s village one day, they bring shattering news. The father who forsook her is a king. And he has summoned his daughter with a simple, chilling command: marry and produce an heir. Fleet-footed Atalanta, determined not to betray Artemis, counters with a grim proposal. She will marry the first man to outrun her in a footrace, and those she defeats must die. It is Atalanta’s desperate hope that no man will be foolish enough to meet her challenge’

 

4. The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak 9780553385649
‘On a train filled with quietly sleeping passengers, a young man’s life is forever altered when he is miraculously seen by a blind man. In a quiet town an American teacher who has lost her Japanese lover to death begins to lose her own self. On a remote road amid fallow rice fields, four young friends carefully take their own lives—and in that moment they become almost as one. In a small village a disaffected American teenager stranded in a strange land discovers compassion after an encounter with an enigmatic red fox, and in Tokyo a girl named Love learns the deepest lessons about its true meaning from a coma patient lost in dreams of an affair gone wrong.’

 

5. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson
‘Gerald Middleton is a sixty-year-old self-proclaimed failure. Worse than that, he’s “a failure with a conscience.” As a young man, he was involved in an archaeological dig that turned up an obscene idol in the coffin of a seventh-century bishop and scandalized a generation. The discovery was in fact the most outrageous archaeological hoax of the century, and Gerald has long known who was responsible and why. But to reveal the truth is to risk destroying the world of cozy compromises that, personally as well as professionally, he has long made his own.  One of England’s first openly gay novelists, Angus Wilson was a dirty realist who relished the sleaze and scuffle of daily life. Slashingly satirical, virtuosically plotted, and displaying Dickensian humor and nerve, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes features a vivid cast of characters that includes scheming academics and fading actresses, big businessmen toggling between mistresses and wives, media celebrities, hustlers, transvestites, blackmailers, toadies, and even one holy fool. Everyone, it seems, is either in cahoots or in the dark, even as comically intrepid Gerald Middleton struggles to maintain some dignity while digging up a history of lies.’

 

97815679225306. The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers
‘Written in 1939, first published in 1942, a national bestseller and a 1943 BOMC Main Selection, The Seventh Cross presented a still doubtful, naive America a first-hand account of life in Hitler’s Germany and of the horrors of the concentration camps. Seven men attempt an escape from Westhofen; the camp commander erects seven crosses, one for each. Only one, the young communist, Heisler, survives, not by cunning or superior skill, but through the complicity of a web of common citizens unwilling to bow to the Gestapo and forced to make decisions that will determine the character of their future lives.’

 

7. Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver
‘Within these pages Mary Oliver collects twenty-six of her poems about the birds that have been such an important part of her life-hawks, hummingbirds, and herons; kingfishers, catbirds, and crows; swans, swallows and, of course, the snowy owl, among a dozen others-including ten poems that have never before been collected. She adds two beautifully crafted essays, “Owls,” selected for the Best American Essays series, and “Bird,” a new essay that will surely take its place among the classics of the genre.’

 

8. Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams 9780810984653
‘Kraken is the traditional name for gigantic sea monsters, and this book introduces one of the most charismatic, enigmatic, and curious inhabitants of the sea: the squid. The pages take the reader on a wild narrative ride through the world of squid science and adventure, along the way addressing some riddles about what intelligence is, and what monsters lie in the deep. In addition to squid, both giant and otherwise, Kraken examines other equally enthralling cephalopods, including the octopus and the cuttlefish, and explores their otherworldly abilities, such as camouflage and bioluminescence. Accessible and entertaining, Kraken is also the first substantial volume on the subject in more than a decade and a must for fans of popular science.’

 

9. The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian 9780099459064
‘From Mi Jian, the highly acclaimed Chinese dissident, comes a satirical novel about the absurdities of life in a post-Tiananmen China.  Two men meet for dinner each week. Over the course of one of these drunken evenings, the writer recounts the stories he would write, had he the courage: a young man buys an old kiln and opens a private crematorium, delighting in his ability to harass the corpses of police officers and Party secretaries, while swooning to banned Western music; a heartbroken actress performs a public suicide by stepping into the jaws of a wild tiger, watched nonchalantly by her ex-lover. Extraordinary characters inspire him, their lives pulled and pummeled by fate and politics, as if they are balls of dough in the hands of an all-powerful noodle maker.  Ma Jian’s satirical masterpiece allows us a humorous, yet profound, glimpse of those struggling to survive under a system that dictates their every move.’

 

10. My Grandfather: His Wives and Loves by Diana Holman-Hunt
‘A biography of William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, researched and written by his granddaughter from a broad selection of primary and secondary sources, including Hunt’s correspondence with F.G. Stephens, and many of her own friends possessing a personal interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian period.’

 

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‘Speedy Death’ by Gladys Mitchell ****

‘Speedy Death’ by Gladys Mitchell (Vintage)

Gladys Mitchell, although she has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent decades, was one of the ‘Big Three’ female crime writers of the ‘golden age’, alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.  She was even the recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.  Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, ‘the most gloriously unorthodox female detective’ in the golden age of crime fiction is introduced in the first of Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley mysteries, Speedy Death, which was first published in 1929.  Sixty six novels in total were penned in which she appears as protagonist.  Vintage have republished four of her Mrs Bradley novels – the others are The Longer Bodies, Devil at Saxon Wall and Here Comes a Chopper – and have sixteen of her other titles available via their print-on-demand service.

Speedy Death opens with a young woman, Dorothy Clark, being chastised by her brother because she has appeared at the country house, to which many have been invited, on a far later train than she originally specified: ‘Our brother in the front row has been trying to get through to Paddington to find out whether you’d been rendered dead in the buffet through eating one of their ham sandwiches’, he tells her. The host of the dinner is one Alastair Bing, whose son, Garde, is Dorothy’s fiance.  Mrs Bradley, whom Mitchell describes as being ‘dry without being shrivelled, and birdlike without being pretty’, is also a guest at this party.

The main thread of the story comes to the forefront of the novel when, during a dinner at Chaynings, the ‘charming country manor’, one of the guests – much-revered explorer Everard Mountjoy, who is engaged to Garde’s sister Eleanor – fails to turn up.  Whilst searching around the manor for him, the other guests discover the body of an unknown woman in a bathtub.  It is believed, upon further investigation, that Mountjoy was actually a woman who was masquerading as a man.  The two men who discover this fact keep it from the rest of the party, and merely tell them that ‘Mountjoy was dead before any of us came down to dinner this evening’.  Almost everyone present at Chaynings takes it upon themselves to try and solve what is believed to be the murder – rather than the accidental death – of the woman in the bath; a technique which holds intrigue.

The case is an interesting one, and holds surprises from beginning to end.  Mitchell’s writing is consistently good, and particularly shines when one regards the conversational patterns which she has crafted throughout.  Her writing is shrewd, intelligent, interesting, and really rather funny.  Speedy Death is so well paced, and is not at all a predictable murder mystery.  Mitchell has such skill as a novelist, and I for one am so glad that Vintage are reprinting some of her work.  Fans of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey are sure to love her.

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