Crimson Snow brings together a dozen vintage crime stories set in winter. Welcome to a world of Father Christmases behaving oddly, a famous fictional detective in a Yuletide drama, mysterious tracks in the snow—-, and some very unpleasant carol singers. The mysterious events chronicled by a distinguished array of contributors in this volume frequently take place at Christmas. There’s no denying that the supposed season of goodwill is a time of year that lends itself to detective fiction. On a cold night, it’s tempting to curl up by the fireside with a good mystery. And more than that, claustrophobic house parties, when people may be cooped up with long-estranged relatives, can provide plenty of motives for murder. Including forgotten stories by great writers such as Margery Allingham, as well as classic tales by less familiar crime novelists, each story in this selection is introduced by the great expert on classic crime, Martin Edwards. The resulting volume is an entertaining and atmospheric compendium of wintry delights.
The opening story – Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch – features some well-known mystery setpieces: a Christmas party, two cousins – one of them inherited the family estate and the other the family fortune – and a haunted bedroom but doesn’t quite go where you expect. Sadly it’s a bit too short to make much of that fact. It’s over before you have time to be surprised. There was a similar problem with Julian Symons’ The Santa Claus Club. The setting is a Christmas charity dinner and one of the participants has been receiving threatening letters. The dinner happens. A murder happens. The murderer is caught. Symons only takes slightly longer than me to narrate these events.
Crimson Snow also gives us two stories some golden age connoisseurs will look down on because they’re -gasp– pulp. One of them, The Chopham Affair, is by one of the masters of pulp, Edgar Wallace. And no, he isn’t exactly known for writing deep psychological masterpieces that give insight into the human soul – or particularly clever ‘fair’ mysteries and this story about an unpleasant man who makes his money by seducing women and blackmailing them is neither. But it is great fun. The same is true for Victor Gunn’s Death in December. It again gives us the well-loved setting of a snowed-in Christmas party at a manor with a house ghost. It also features a villain whose plan is ridiculously complicated, even for the mystery world where people sometimes built elaborate contraptions to simulate the sound of a gunshot so that they have an alibi. The detective, meanwhile, solves this case because he has an exceptionally good sense of smell. Realism even in the broadest mystery sense? No. Fun? Hell yes.
Margery Allingham’s The Man With The Sack takes us back to the beloved setting of a Christmas party. The host’s daughter has a boyfriend her parents (especially her mother) disapprove of because he’s the son of a criminal. When some jewels go missing she has little doubt about who is responsible – unlike Campion. It’s not an extraordinary story – and the whodunit is not particularly surprising (the how is at least somewhat interesting) but it’s solid entertainment and that’s more than can be said about some of the other stories in this collection. There’s S. C. Roberts’ Holmes Pastiche Christmas Eve that features a criminal whose plan doesn’t make sense no matter which way I look at it and a Holmes that has been replaced by a very stupid doppelganger. Meanwhile, Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas tells us a lot about golf and possibly somewhere between all that also a bit about murder but I was too bored by all the golf talk to pay much attention.
Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even isn’t quite as bad. The main character showed some promise but the story didn’t. It’s hard to say much about it without spoiling the end so let’s just say this story is on the humorous side and involves a misunderstanding. And the author pokes some fun at the character misunderstanding things. Only, I could easily see why he would misunderstand things the way he did. Suggestings his actions were stupid – or at least very over-eager – felt weird.
While in most of the stories the setting over Christmas was at least in some way relevant to the story, in some the setting seems very coincidentally. Especially Off The Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold could have been set on any wet day. That doesn’t make it a bad story but it’s not one of the more overwhelming ones. In Macdonald Hastings’ Mr Cork’s Secret the feeling that it lacks the proper seasonal feeling can probably be attributed to the fact that the climax is set on a yacht somewhere on the French Riviera but it’s still an entertaining story with fun twists and turns.
Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers which closes this collection is rather unusual for a golden age mystery in two ways. For one it’s quite dark and doesn’t act as if murder is just an intellectual challenge instead of a human tragedy. It also lacks the typical set-up with a victim and suspects which were all close to the victim. The death in this story is caused by a burglary gone wrong and as such the question, not just ‘whodunit’ but also ‘how do we find them in the first place?’ The whole story reminded me a bit of a police procedural episode: a cold opening that shows us the last moments of the victim and then some more or less realistic police investigation with questions that lead from one suspect to the next (and even some action and chase at the end). To come back to the hypothetical mystery connoisseurs who already really hated the stories by Wallace and Gunn: He will probably also dislike this one. For me, it was quite unexpected, and admittedly felt somewhat out of place in this collection where murder is otherwise treated less darkly but it was still a good story.