“Not a nice murder. Not at all a nice murder.”
Silent Nights, another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, is a compilation of short stories–all with the common factor that the action takes place over Christmas. Police agencies and even the FBI warn that crime increases during the holiday season. Is it all the late night shopping, the carrying of cash? In other words, is the increase due to increased opportunities or are the statistics driven more by the need of the criminal to provide extra for their families? After reading Silent Nights, if there’s a connective theme, it’s how the Christmas season creates opportunities for criminals, and in some instances the season even creates such tempting opportunities that normally honest people turn to crime.
Here’s a breakdown of the stories:
- The Blue Carbuncle: Arthur Conan Doyle
- Parlour Tricks: Ralph Plummer
- A Happy Solution: Raymund Allen
- The Flying Stars: G. K. Chesterton
- Stuffing: Edgar Wallace
- The Unknown Murderer: H.C. Bailey
- The Absconding Treasurer: J. Jefferson Farjeon
- The Necklace of Pearls: Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Case is Altered: Margery Allingham
- Waxworks: Ethel Lina White
- Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen
- The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing
- A Problem in White: Nicholas Blake
- The Name on the Window: Edmund Crispin
- Beef for Christmas: Leo Bruce
Short story collections are a great way to discover new names, and in Silent Nights, there are some very famous names and others I’d never heard of. This collection begins with an intro by Martin Edwards and each story is prefaced with short biographical content.
Some of the stories are very traditional ‘who-dun-its,’ so in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the mystery concerns a lost top hat and a stolen diamond with Holmes managing to deduce a great deal from the hat that has seen better days while Watson stands on the sidelines wondering just how Holmes manages to make such brilliantly accurate conclusions. Other stories, such as Dorothy Sayers’ The Necklace of Pearls and Edgar Wallace’s Stuffing take place at Christmas country gatherings. Some stories are very deadly serious detective stories which concern murder while other stories are light and humorous in tone.
“A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes,” remarked Crook, with some impatience; “and a Conservative does not mean a man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.”
“But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice,” to own your own soot.”
That’s an excerpt from the witty G.K Chesterton story, The Flying Stars.
Of the collection, and there’s a very nice range of stories here, I have to say that I was much more attracted to the unusual stories: The Unknown Murderer: H. C Bailey, Waxworks: Ethel Lina White, Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen, and The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing.
The Unknown Murderer from H. C Bailey is the story of a serial killer, and the story’s powerful sense of evil set this tale rather disturbingly apart from the others. Waxworks from Ethel Lina White concerns an intrepid young female reporter who opts to spend the night in a waxworks museum to investigate the truth behind the mysterious deaths that have taken place there. In Cambric Tea, a young doctor sacrifices his Christmas holiday in order to attend to a cantankerous old man who insists he’s being poisoned by his wife. In The Chinese Apple, a woman reluctantly travels to England from Florence in order to take over the care of a niece she’s never met.
Ethel Lina White also wrote the novel Some Must Watch which was made into the film The Spiral Staircase. Joseph Shearing is one of the male pen names used by Marjorie Bowen, so in other words, she ( author’s real name, Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long) made my short list twice. The biographical intro to the story from Martin Edwards mentions that ‘Joseph Shearing’ wrote For Her to See (made into the film So Evil My Love) which was inspired by the real Charles Bravo murder case. Film fans may be interested to know that Marjorie Bowen, as Joseph Shearing also wrote Blanche Fury and Moss Rose. Three out of four of my favourite stories, Waxworks, Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple were very cinematic stories, and perhaps that’s no coincidence.