A Surprise for Christmas, from the British Library Crime Classics series, is a selection of classic crime stories with a Christmas theme. As well as a general introduction, each is introduced with a brief biography of the author and some information about the story itself.
There are some familiar names, including Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Julian Symons, and a few that are new to me. Like all such collections, I enjoyed some more than others. Many of them follow the twist-in-the-tail or the clue-based formula rather than the more psychologically driven stories I prefer, but a few were interesting.
‘Dick Whittington’s Cat’ by Victor Canning was one of my favourite of the ‘twist’ stories. When the actor playing the pantomime cat singles out an audience member for attention, he appears to enjoy tormenting her and her escort, but the encounter has consequences. It vividly creates the atmosphere of a theatre, and the power performers exert over a crowd, as well as playing with the cat-and-mouse theme.
‘Person or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson (a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr) is an atmospheric story within a story. A group of friends gather for a party in an old manor house. The host tells them about the apparent haunting of the house by a Restoration ghost and the history he has learnt from archive records, inviting them to solve the mystery of an apparently supernatural death.
The stand-out for me is one of the longer stories, ‘The Hole in the Wall’ by GK Chesterton. In form it at first appears to be a typical country-house murder – a group of guests assembled for a fancy-dress ball at Prior’s Park, a country seat facing the encroachment of the suburbs and wider social change. However, it encompasses much more.
There is quite a magical atmosphere as the guests are transformed into the roles of their Medieval forbears, skating on a frozen lake. The characters are lightly drawn but distinctive, moving beyond the generic types in some of the other stories, and the narration is wry and playful. There are clues to follow to solve the murder, but the denouement, when it comes, addresses wider themes about the nature of history and identity. I’ve always wanted to read Chesterton but never got round to it, and this has pushed me to download some Father Brown stories.
This is a fun collection to dip into, to draw inspiration for further reading, and the lovely cover makes it an attractive gift, ideal for crime fiction lovers to curl up with on a cold night.