Murder Under the Christmas Tree contains ten stories by a variety of crime authors, all with a Christmas theme or set during the festive period. I don’t often choose to read short story collections (although I seem to have read more of them this year than ever before, so maybe that is beginning to change) but I picked this one up in the library a few weeks ago because I was intrigued by the mixture of authors – some modern, some classic, some that I was familiar with and some that I wasn’t.
I’m never sure of the best way to write about books like this, but as there are only ten stories I think I should be able to give all of them a brief mention. The book opens with The Necklace of Pearls, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the five authors in the collection I had read before. The story involves a search for a valuable pearl necklace which goes missing as a party of guests gather to celebrate Christmas. I always like Sayers’ writing, but this particular story is not very strong and not a great start to the book, in my opinion. It is followed by The Name on the Window by Edmund Crispin, a locked room mystery set in winter and featuring his detective Gervase Fen. Crispin is another author I have previously read – I highly recommend The Moving Toyshop if you haven’t read it yet – and again, this story is not the best example of his work but it’s still enjoyable and I didn’t guess the solution.
Now we come to one of the authors who were new to me: Val McDermid. Yes, there are some huge gaps in my reading when it comes to more recent crime fiction! A Traditional Christmas is a short and simple murder mystery with a nice twist at the end. I really liked this one, although it felt odd coming straight after Sayers and Crispin – especially as the next story is an even older one: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery involving a Christmas goose and a precious jewel. I feel sure I must have read it before, but I couldn’t remember it at all!
The Invisible Man is next: a Father Brown mystery by GK Chesterton. I first encountered Father Brown in a British Library Crime Classics anthology I read earlier this year (Miraculous Mysteries), but I enjoyed this story much more than that one. It made me think about the things we never notice and the things that we do! This is followed by another modern story, Cinders by Ian Rankin. During rehearsals for a performance of Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother is found dead and Rankin’s detective Rebus is called in to investigate. I have never read anything by Ian Rankin before and although there was nothing wrong with this story, I don’t think he’s an author for me.
The next two stories are my favourites. The first, Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh, is a fascinating story set during the early days of radio. On Christmas morning, ‘Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set’, presumably having been electrocuted – but was it an accident or was it murder? This is my first introduction to Marsh’s work, but I would love to read more. The next story, Persons or Things Unknown, is by Carter Dickson, a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr. A host entertains his house guests with an atmospheric tale of murder set in the 17th century. I loved it – and again, I will be looking for more by this author.
The penultimate story in the book is Margery Allingham’s The Case is Altered. It’s an Albert Campion mystery and while I had hoped it would be one of the highlights of the book, I found it quite forgettable. The last story, The Price of Light by Ellis Peters, was good but felt out of place in this collection, being a Brother Cadfael mystery set in 1135. I’ve never read anything by Peters before and I liked this enough to want to try one of her full-length Cadfael novels.
This is an uneven collection, then, and I don’t think the mixture of Golden Age, historical and contemporary mysteries really worked. I’m pleased I read it, though, if only because it has given me my first taste of Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr and Ellis Peters. Another book in this series, Murder on Christmas Eve, also edited by Cecily Gayford, has just been published and seems to include many of the same authors.