Crimson Snow -A British Library Crime Classic for Christmas

Crimson Snow, yet another British Library Crime Classic, a collection  of stories with a Christmas theme, is a good read at this time of year. None of the stories here are so Christmas based that they cannot be read during the winter. The characteristic they all share is that they are all ingenious, whether short or long. Margery Allingham manages in her short story, The Man with the Sack, to create not only a situation, theft and resolve it, but also some deliciously unlikable characters in the process. Edgar Wallace plays tricks not only with the detectives, but also the reader, in his story of widespread wickedness. I also enjoyed Death in December, which plays on the idea of the country house murder with the somewhat unusual detective Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.

Part of the fun of stories like this is working out whether you can get to the solution before the detective, but short stories do not leave you wondering for long. Indeed, some stories here seem to be solved before they really get going, but others take great pains to include characterisation and incident before the denouement. There are oddities here, including a little Sherlock Holmes script which will not be appearing on the BBC anytime soon, and a locked room mystery that isn’t all it seems. The Insurance Investigation is more interesting than a paper exercise, and the book includes two pieces contributed to the competition which surrounded it. The only criticism I really have is of a story which introduces a victim a bit too well, which I found disturbing. Nevertheless, it is an ingenious story, well told.

Overall, this is an interesting collection of stories which would be a good read for any fan of the Golden Age Mystery, but it stands alone as a good winter read with many twists and turns. It represents good value, as if you are not so keen on one story there will be another one along in a minute…

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Another Little Christmas Murder – Lorna Nicholl Morgan

If you are in search of a cosy murder to read at this time of year, I would recommend Another Little Christmas Murder  by a woman, for a change, Lorna Nicholl Morgan. I picked it up on impulse, never having heard of this author, especially when I noticed it was published in 1947 and thus a genuine historical murder mystery, rather than vaguely set in the past.

Also refreshingly, this book’s main character is a woman, a business woman in her own right, who does not sit around waiting for a man to sort the situation out. For those of us who are nervous drivers or passengers at this time of year, Dilys Hughes rushes in where I would hesitate to venture in a little car in snow, the bleak Yorkshire moors. She gets stuck, but is rescued by a young man rejoicing in the name of Inigo Brown, who is en route to see his uncle in a snowbound family home of Wintry Wold. The welcome from a new, young aunt, Theresa, is almost as cold as the bedrooms in the house. Furthermore, there are several others there, equally stuck by reason of broken down vehicles and dubious servant type roles, if not alcohol consumption. The Uncle is not seen, but is very ill and needing nursing. Mysterious footsteps in the night lead Dilys to investigate, and what she discovers throws all that she has been told into doubt.

This is a Golden Age mystery in that is is a closed set of characters stuck in a large house with mysterious goings on.There is no central detective obvious from the start, and so everyone is suspect, and nothing is as it seems. There are many characters to keep in mind, and some are better drawn than others, but I liked Dilys and her determination to find out what is going on. Many, many cigarettes are consumed, alcohol taken, and there is some violence, but nothing gory or nightmare inducing. There are red herrings, a fresh air fiend, and lots of snow and car mending. There is a vehicle chase at the end, and knowing a little of the roads in the area I was suitably chilled. It is not great literature, and not a classic bound for tv adaptation, but a good winter (Christmas is not really mentioned, despite the title) mystery for an afternoon and evening’s consistently good read.

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Ghost Stories and Bewildering Cares reviewed on Shiny New Books!

It’s Shiny New Books day! I have two reviews in the reprints section: Bewildering Cares  by Winifred Peck – possibly worth checking as it has been a free kindle book on Amazon…, and a review of E.F. Benson’s Ghost Stories.  As I point out in my review, this is a very Benson Book – and not as scary as I feared…


As always, there’s plenty of book reviews and bookish news to read here. Thank you, Simon, for some great editing….

The Camomile Lawn – Mary Wesley

When I added this book to my list of suggestions for a new Book Group, I didn’t really think it would leap out and be the first choice for December’s meeting. Still, despite the fact that it has aged (well, I think) this is a novel to savour, not least for its wartime setting, which is an interest of mine, but also the quality of its writing.

For those of you not previously acquainted with the writing of Mary Wesley, this is a novel written when she was in her seventies (which should give hope to us all!) in which she uses her own experience of what life as a young woman in the early 1940s was actually like. This she cleverly cuts in with the talk and memories of the characters much later, as they gather for the funeral of the most famous and infamous member of the older generation of those who gathered for dinner on a camomile lawn in August 1939. The lives of the male characters are equally vivid, as they perhaps seek comfort, an important theme for Oliver, courage and understanding of a world where nothing is certain, even life itself.

The novel begins in a peacetime where war is threatened, but is difficult to believe in for many of the characters. There are painful memories among the older people, who know that war can mean loss of not only life but a future. There is disbelief that the Nazis are really that bad, even though two people have escaped from their long reach and suffer agonies of worry for a son left behind; there is still the persistent hope that another cataclysmic war can be avoided. This is not a war book in the sense of battles, or even descriptions of bombing. The war is a background which explains the coming and going of characters, the relaxation of inhibitions, the intensity of real emotions. There  are no purple passages of “she felt”, “he realised” “she knew”. This is a prime example of the show rather than tell emotions; although Helena’s singular behaviour rather confuses others, the effect of her choices is so well observed that we do not need to wade through pages of self – analysis to see that when everything is changing and challenging, surviving is about more than dutiful self sacrifice.

I had forgotten that this is a book which is not afraid to describe unorthodox relationships which can happen when survival is not guaranteed; a passing happiness or comfort becomes understandable if not commendable for many of the characters, even though surprises and confusion can reign. In short, this book is more racy than I remembered! This should not put you off, as the character who publicly claims “not to know what love is” is the one who discovers much in the course of the novel. The 1991 tv version of the novel is a fitting translation of the narrative which looking back features some amazing performances, but the characters are all there, drawn to near perfection in the book itself. Apparently Wesley’s books run in a sequence, so I will be seeking out my copies of her other novels soon!

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