Thursday, 20 December 2018
Crimson Snow - Winter Mysteries
Edited by Martin Edwards
The British Library Press
So this is my fourth year of reading a book in December which has a Christmas setting and then reviewing it on here and... I have to say that if I didn’t know better it would not be unreasonable for me to conclude, after the previous two years, that I just don’t like short stories. The first year I tried what is now becoming something of a tradition, I read the novel Mystery In White (you can read that review here) and I really enjoyed it. Alas, when I followed it up the next two years with Christmas short horror story collections, I was less than impressed. So this year I’ve tried a selection of mystery stories and I have to say that, for the most part, I am somewhat less than enthusiastic about a great deal of the fiction I was reading in this tome.
However, before I hastily concur that the short story format is not for me.... let me add that I love the short stories of such writers as Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Allan Poe. So maybe, I might resign myself to the fact that I don’t like collections of stories by a variety of writers where, to be fair, the hit and miss nature of that proposition might be a deciding factor in whether it’s something I can get behind or not. However, I am then reminded that I loved the selection of Christmas stories from The New Yorker magazine which they published a decade or so ago and, every year, I enjoy at least one Tales Of The Shadowmen collection (I really must get around to reviewing one of those sometime soon) and so, perhaps, I should be a little less hard on myself when it comes to my overall reaction to these things and just chalk it up to experience, once more.
The collection known as Crimson Snow and subtitled Winter Mysteries is a case in point where once again I feel victim to the hit and miss nature of the volume in which I have decided to spend time with on the run up to the Christmas festivities.
In the introduction to the collection he has put together here, Mr. Edwards highlights the benefits of curling up with a book over the Christmas period, rather than spending all one's time with online shopping or parties of a varied nature and, I have to say, this is a matter in which I am in whole hearted agreement with... or would be once the online shopping is done. Alas, if it had been a different curling companion other than this particular volume I chose, I might have had a more beneficial experience here than what I ended up with.
I’d have to say that while the majority of stories in this collection are fairly well written, they were certainly less than entertaining and, in a fair few cases, easy mysteries to solve. The opening story, The Ghost’s Touch is something I’ve already forgotten the details of (and pretty much most of the broad strokes too, it has to be said) but I do remember it starts off trying to pass itself off as a traditional Christmas ghost story before, inevitably, heading into territory more familiar to those who would embark on an endeavour boldly subtitled Winter Mysteries. It has some nice foreshadowing... “Had I been absent, the catastrophe might have been greater...” but, overall I have to say that I was mostly ambivalent towards this short and it didn’t really give me anything I wasn’t expecting.
There were a few of these stories written by famous names such as Edgar Wallace which, I have to say, didn’t really take me by surprise when... spoiler alert... it turned out the narrator who was following the investigation of a murder turned out to be the guilty party. Another seasonal tale called The Man With The Sack, written by Margery Allingham and starring her famous detective Campion, was similarly disappointing.
As was a script for a Sherlock Homes spin off play by S.C. Roberts, which actually had me wondering what the writer was thinking attempting it and, furthermore, why it was included here. There are much better Sherlock Holmes parodies out in the world and this one didn’t really seem to add anything new into the mix.
Most of the volume is just small puzzle solving and nothing, at least for this reader, to get excited about. There were a couple of standouts but for every little real gem here there seems to be at least two stories worth of paste. One of the stories included is all about a woman getting pushed off a roof and, quite honestly, I couldn’t find one single reason as to why it had been included in a book which has such a clearly descriptive and functional title as this.
But there are a couple of stories here worth reading...
Mr. Cork’s Secret by McDonald Hastings is a fast moving murder caper set in a hotel over Christmas and, like the original printing of the magazine it first appeared in... an extra solution to the mystery is given as a last chapter at the end of the book which was originally published in another issue, along with the two pages by the competition winners who had guessed just what Mr. Cork’s secret was (it’s really not that hard, to be honest). The dialogue and atmosphere is straight out of a 1930s or 1940s detective movie and fairly sparkles on the page.
By far my favourite tale, however, was Death In December by Victor Gunn, which featured that author’s running police detective character, Ironsides Cromwell and which was culled from a collection of stories featuring the detective set during various holiday periods. This one has some nice stuff in it and, again, takes the guise of a Christmas ghost story before revealing the inevitable human hands behind the seemingly supernatural shenanigans. Nice stuff though and a shadowy figure chased by the detectives that leaves no footprints in the snow has a nice explanation for this phenomenon. Easily the most entertaining gem of the collection and also, I think, the longest.
There’s one or two other nice things in this selection too but even a story which relies on a poisoned napkin which the victim rubs over his lips at various points during a Christmas dinner kind of loses its sting when you’ve already figured out who the killer really was when he was introduced fairly early on in the story. And another tale where a detective tries to solve the presence of a mystery owner at a house is nice in the fact that it turns out the mystery element of the story is entirely in the policeman’s head and he’s just gotten the wrong end of the stick.
All in all though... yeah, I’m not that happy with my choice this year and so I need to maybe find a more substantial Christmas adventure which doesn’t comprise of just short stories for next December, methinks. As for Crimson Snow... there are some things to like in it and the editor writes a page of prologue to each story to explain who each writer is but... I would only recommend it for die hard mystery fans. Not my cup of tea.