Campion at Christmas by Margery Allingham

I love Margery Allingham so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read this new collection of four short stories, all with a festive theme. The title is slightly misleading as only three of the four stories feature Albert Campion, but they are all quite enjoyable in their different ways. They are also very short, so perfect for readers with busy Christmas schedules who just want something quick to read!

The first story, On Christmas Day in the Morning, was my favourite and involves Campion investigating the death of a postman hit by a car on Christmas morning. The culprits have been identified, but the evidence provided by local residents is confusing and Campion must decide whether the suspects and the victim really could have been in the right location at the right time for the accident to have taken place. It’s not much of a mystery, but I found it a sad and poignant story which reminded me of how lonely some people feel at Christmas.

Next we have Happy Christmas, probably the weakest story in the book, in which a young couple with a passion for the 19th century decide that they would like to have a traditional Victorian Christmas. Campion doesn’t appear at all in this story and I’m not sure that it really belonged in this collection. I’m not entirely sure what the point of it was, although I do love the idea of a Victorian Christmas.

The Case of the Man with the Sack is a more conventional detective story. Albert Campion is celebrating Christmas with friends at their country house when a theft takes place – and the main suspect is Santa Claus. This is a slightly longer story than the others, so there’s more time to develop the plot. Of course, it can’t compare with a full-length Campion mystery, but it was interesting enough to hold my attention until the end.

Finally, there’s Word In Season, a lovely but unusual tale about Campion and his dog, Poins. Did you know that, according to myth, animals are given the power of speech in the final hour of Christmas Eve? I didn’t, but that’s what this final story is about.

These four Christmas stories were obviously ideal for the time of year and I did find them entertaining, but I thought they were too short to be completely satisfying. I’m looking forward to reading some more of Allingham’s longer novels soon.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three mystery novels during the 1930s, all of which are now available as British Library Crime Classics. This one, The Santa Klaus Murder, sounded as though it would be perfect for the time of year, and of course it was. I enjoyed it, although I found it very similar to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, and not as good as either of those books.

The Santa Klaus Murder is set in and around Flaxmere, a country estate belonging to Sir Osmond Melbury. The novel opens with several first-person accounts written by members of Sir Osmond’s family as they gather at the house to celebrate Christmas and in this way we get to know all of the main characters and learn a little bit about their backgrounds and the relationships between them.

It seems that for many years, Sir Osmond has been trying to control and manipulate the lives of his adult children. His son, George, has the security of knowing that, as the only male heir, his inheritance is safe, but for the four daughters things are much more uncertain. He has already tried to influence, with varying success, the marriages of the three eldest girls – Hilda, Edith and Eleanor – and is now trying to do the same with Jennifer, the youngest. Philip Cheriton, the man Jennifer loves, is attending the Christmas gathering, but Sir Osmond has also invited Oliver Witcombe, whom he would prefer to see as her husband. Jennifer is desperate to marry Philip but needs to find a way to do so without upsetting her father.

We do see a kinder side to Sir Osmond when, on Christmas Day, he asks Oliver to dress up in a Santa Klaus costume and distribute gifts to the family and servants. When the old man is discovered shot dead at his desk in the study that same afternoon, all the clues seem to point towards Santa…but why would Oliver want Sir Osmond dead? Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, is brought in to investigate and quickly discovers that almost everyone who spent Christmas at Flaxmere may have had a motive for murder. Could the killer be one of Sir Osmond’s children or one of their partners? What about his pretty young secretary, Grace Portisham, who may be expecting to receive something in his will? Or could it be Ashmore, the family’s old chauffeur, who lost his job at Flaxmere just before Christmas?

Most of the remaining chapters in the book, with one or two exceptions, are narrated by Col. Halstock as he tries to identify the culprit. There’s a lot of discussion of alibis, people’s movements, and the layout of the rooms, so if you enjoy trying to solve those sorts of puzzles – where somebody was at a certain time and what they were doing, or how somebody could have moved from one room to another without being seen – then this is probably the book for you. I didn’t work out who the murderer was, although I had my suspicions, but I did find other parts of the plot easy to predict. As a traditional country house mystery, there wasn’t much that made this book stand out from other books of its genre and era, but as an entertaining and undemanding Christmas read I found it satisfying enough.

Mavis Doriel Hay’s other novels are Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell, both of which I’m now interested in reading.

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Tudor Christmas and Henry VII

I didn’t have time last month to write about all of the books I read for Nonfiction November, so I’m combining the final two into one post today, which I think is quite appropriate as they are both Tudor related!

First, A Tudor Christmas. If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet, this lovely little book by historian and novelist Alison Weir and her co-author Siobhan Clarke, a guide for Historic Royal Palaces, could be the perfect gift for any history lovers in your life (or for yourself, at any time of year, of course).

Divided into twelve sections to represent each of the twelve days of Christmas, the book takes us through the origins of many of our favourite Christmas traditions, as well as some that were popular in Tudor times but have disappeared over the years. The text is interspersed with recipes, poems, carols and illustrations, so if you don’t want to read it straight through from beginning to end, you could just pick it up and read a page or two whenever you have a few spare moments over the festive period. This is much shorter than the other non-fiction books I’ve read by Alison Weir and obviously doesn’t have the same level of depth, but even so she and Clarke manage to cover a large amount of material, touching on almost every aspect of Christmas you could think of.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways in which St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day was celebrated in different parts of Europe, ranging from hunting the wren and taking beribboned horses to be blessed by the priest, to distributing alms to the poor. There’s a discussion of when the turkey was first introduced to England, a fascinating chapter about the typical games that would be played at home or at court, and some eye-opening accounts of how much money Henry VIII would spend on celebrating Christmas. There are also descriptions of earlier traditions such as the burning of the yule log and the origins of holly, ivy and mistletoe being used as decorations and, although I would have preferred a tighter focus on the Tudor period itself (which is what I’d expected from the title), I did find the whole book an interesting and worthwhile read.

From a Tudor Christmas to a Tudor king…Henry VII by Gladys Temperley is a biography of the first Tudor monarch who reigned from 1485 to 1509. Originally published in 1914 (and reissued more recently by Endeavour Compass), it does feel a bit dated and dry in places, but I still found it perfectly readable.

I started to read this book shortly after finishing The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, a fictional account of Henry’s life before he became king, so I was particularly interested in the earlier sections which gave the facts behind some of the episodes which were featured in the novel such as Henry’s time in exile and preparations for his return to England at the head of an army. However, all of this is passed over very quickly, to be followed by a much longer section on the rebellions, conspiracies and pretenders to the throne – including Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel – that repeatedly threatened Henry’s reign. As Temperley says, “He trusted few men, suspected many. He had plunged too early into the bitter waters of adversity, and as a fugitive exile, eating the bread of dependence at the courts of France and Brittany, had learnt to watch and school himself until repression had killed all spontaneity.”

Henry VII isn’t one of my favourite kings, but Gladys Temperley seems to have a lot of respect and admiration for him, which I think is a good thing – as long as it doesn’t lead to too much bias, I always think it’s better when an author likes and is genuinely passionate about their subject. Temperley highlights many of Henry’s lasting achievements, such as his ‘Mercantile System’, a policy which aimed to increase foreign trade and improve England’s economy, and the steps he took towards reforming the country’s judicial system.

The book feels thoroughly researched; there are footnotes throughout the text, three appendices giving more information on The Star Chamber, Perkin Warbeck and Juana of Castile, and a very impressive bibliography. You do need to remember, though, that this is a very old biography and that what we know of history is constantly evolving. For a more modern look at Henry VII, I recommend Winter King by Thomas Penn.

Six Degrees of Separation: The Christmas Edition

It’s the first Saturday of a new month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

The book we’re going to begin with this month is, appropriately for December, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I still have the beautiful hardback copy I was given as a child with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. I talked about my memories of A Christmas Carol in a Classics Club monthly meme from a few years ao.

There were many different directions I could have taken from this starting point, but I decided to get into the festive spirit with a chain made entirely of Christmas-themed books. Shortly after I first started blogging in 2009, I took part in a Christmas reading challenge for which I read two books: the one above and The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder.

This is an unusual novel (like most of Gaarder’s), in which the story of an ancient pilgrimage to Bethlehem unfolds through scraps of paper found behind the doors of an Advent calendar. In the present day, meanwhile, a mystery begins to emerge involving the creation of the calendar itself.

Now, from one Christmas mystery to a whole collection of them…

Murder Under the Christmas Tree contains stories by classic crime authors such as Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle. One author whose work doesn’t appear in that collection is Agatha Christie, but she did write a few books with a Christmas theme…including the next book in my chain, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

The book involves the murder of an old man who is found dead in his home while his family gather to celebrate Christmas. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a favourite Christie and I didn’t find it very Christmassy either. Another book with a very similar plot, published three years later, is Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer.

Envious Casca has also been published under the title A Christmas Party. However, the family featured in the novel were such a nasty, unpleasant group of people, I couldn’t think of anything worse than being a guest at that particular party! Another mystery set at Christmas with a dysfunctional family at its heart is I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the fourth in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series.

In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, eleven-year-old Flavia tries to catch Santa Claus on his way down the chimney. In the final book in my chain, Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past by Sharyn McCrumb, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood is also trying to catch a man on Christmas Eve – a criminal who lives on a remote farm in the Appalachian Mountains.

For the first time since I’ve started taking part in Six Degrees of Separation, I am able to bring the chain full circle. The title of my final book contains the words ‘Christmas Past’ – and the first book features the Ghost of Christmas Past!

Have you read any of these? What are your favourite Christmas-themed books?

Next month (January) we will be starting our chains with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.

Murder Under the Christmas Tree, edited by Cecily Gayford

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.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirots Christmas I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas! Mine hasn’t been great, unfortunately. My grandfather, who is eighty-five, fell and broke his shoulder last week and has been in hospital over Christmas. Because of his age and poor general health, the doctors haven’t been able to say whether he will make a full recovery or when he might be able to go home. My grandmother, who also has health problems, can’t be left on her own so we are all helping out with taking care of her until we know what long-term arrangements will need to be made. As you can probably imagine, it’s been quite a stressful time and not conducive to writing good book reviews, so this is just a short post to record some thoughts on a recent Christmas-themed read.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a classic locked-room murder mystery which begins with an elderly millionaire, Simeon Lee, inviting various members of his family to spend Christmas with him at his home, Gorston Hall. The family are surprised and suspicious – they are not all on speaking terms and as they begin to gather at Simeon’s house tensions are running high. When the old man is found dead in a pool of blood in his locked bedroom on Christmas Eve, there is no shortage of suspects.

Who could the killer be? Could it be one of Simeon’s sons – the money-obsessed George, maybe, or Harry, who has been estranged from the rest of the family for many years – or one of their wives? What about Pilar Estravados, Simeon’s granddaughter, newly arrived from Spain? Or Stephen Farr, son of Simeon’s former business partner, who has come unexpectedly from South Africa? Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate and as he begins to piece together what happened on the night of the murder, some family secrets are brought to light.

This is not very high on my list of favourite Agatha Christie novels, but I did enjoy it. As usual, I failed to solve the mystery before Poirot did and although there were a few times when I thought I’d figured it out, I never even came close to being correct! Despite the title, it’s not a particularly Christmassy book (Christmas Day passes almost without mention) but I found it fun, entertaining and quick to read, which is just what I was in the mood for. I was reminded of Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, which is also set at Christmas and has a similar storyline.

With plenty of other unread Christie novels still to look forward to, I’m sure I’ll be reading more Poirot in 2016.

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past by Sharyn McCrumb

Nora Bonesteels Christmas Past Sharyn McCrumb is a name I remember from about fifteen years ago when I read two of the books in her Ballad mystery series, She Walks These Hills and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, both set in the Appalachian Mountains and steeped in history and folklore. I know that I enjoyed those two books, but the details have faded from my mind now, so when I saw this new novella available on NetGalley I couldn’t wait to read it and reacquaint myself with Sharyn McCrumb’s work. I hadn’t even realised that she had been continuing to write Ballad novels and that there are ten in the series now!

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past is described as a novella, but it’s really two separate short stories which alternate with each other throughout the book. In the first, we join Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and his deputy Joe LeDonne who have been given the unwelcome task of arresting a man on Christmas Eve. Arriving at the alleged criminal’s home – a remote mountain farm – they encounter problems they had never expected and end up spending Christmas Eve in a very unusual way.

Meanwhile, Nora Bonesteel, an elderly woman with the gift of ‘the Sight’, is being visited by her new neighbour, Shirley Haverty, who has moved into the house Nora still thinks of as ‘the old Honeycutt place’. The Havertys have bought the house as a summer home but have decided to stay on this year and experience a traditional Christmas in the mountains. After a few unexplained mishaps Shirley has become convinced that the house is haunted…and that the ghost doesn’t seem to approve of their bright pink artificial Christmas tree! Can Nora use her psychic abilities and her memories of the house in days gone by to lay the ghost to rest?

This is a short book and could easily be read in one or two sittings (though I didn’t manage that due to choosing a busy time to start reading it). It’s not necessary to have read any of Sharyn McCrumb’s previous books, though I did remember the characters of the Sheriff, Joe LeDonne and Nora Bonesteel.

The two stories in the book are, as I’ve said, completely independent of each other and never come together at all, not even at the end. I found this a bit disappointing and I think it might have been better if they had been presented as two entirely separate stories rather than giving us a few pages of one followed by a few of the other. What the stories do have in common is the Appalachian setting and the fact that they both deal with the subjects of Christmas traditions and the mountain lifestyle.

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past doesn’t have the depth or complexity of the longer novels in the Ballad series and unlike the full-length books there’s no mystery to be solved, but it’s an enjoyable, undemanding read and perfect for the Christmas season.

And now I’m going to end this post on an appropriate note by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas! I should be back between Christmas and New Year with another winter-themed review and my end-of-year lists.