Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries - Edited by Martin Edwards

This is my second Christmas out of retail, and for all the crap that 2020 has bought, it's also the year that I've got autumn back. It's never been my favourite season (which actually probably is winter) but I hadn't realised how lost it gets in retail when it's heads down Christmas planning with a purpose from August onwards (and earlier for a lot of stuff around it). 

Even if I was in town at the moment, with most the shops closed the markers and mood setters I'm used to wouldn't be there. Out in the countryside where my days revolve around the hours of exercise the dog requires, and a once a week trip to the local supermarket it really does feel like a life time ago since colleagues would reassure each other that in 4 more weeks it would all be done, and surely we could cope with that?

It's also the first year in a while I haven't made a Christmas Pudding, or mincemeat - stir up Sunday came and went - and we think we might have trifle this year anyway. Traditions which acted as a life raft to carry me through a shitty job at a tough time of year for the last decade do not feel so important this year. 2020 has that going for it at least. 

I did bring a stack of Christmas themed short stories with my to mum's though, and the first one I've finished is The British Library Crime Classics offering for this year - 'A Surprise for Christmas'. These collections have always been good and this one is no exception to the rule. It's got a really good mix of long short stories, short short stories, and something novella length. There's a lot to be said for this kind of collection when you're away from home and your normal library of books (or when you're travelling a lot, or when you're stuck at home and struggling to settle or concentrate on anything. I really like short story collections for most sets of reading circumstances). 

It turns out that I'm not a huge fan of G.K. Chesterton, but even I thought 'The Hole in the Wall' was okay. I really liked the Ngaio Marsh and Catharine Louisa Pirkis stories a lot. The Novella length offering is pure pulp hokum which demands a little suspension of disbelief and was thoroughly enjoyable. E. R. Punshon's 'Dead Man's Hand' veers into weird territory, which is very suitable for the season, but it's Barry Perowne's 'The Turn Again Bell' which is far more weird than mystery that finishes the collection and sets the tone for it.

I loved this story. In previous years I've appreciated final entries that have a particular darkness about them; 'The Turn Again Bell' is the opposite of these, and is just right for a year that's had more than enough darkness in it. Nothing much like a crime happens in it, but there's an 11th century church, a legend about a bell that rings at Christmas that only the vicar can hear and means he'll be dead within a twelve month, and a beautifully happy ending. 

The British Library Shop has a  3 for 2 offer across all its paperbacks which is a lot of choice - weird anthologies, Women's fiction, Science Fiction anthologies, and all the crime classics including 4 Christmas short story collections, another handful of Christmas or winter themed novels, and more anthologies that will cover all sorts of interests. It's stocking filler heaven for me. 'A Surprise for Christmas' is a vintage entry to the canon - my copy was a treat for myself, it's put me in a much more festive mood, and I can think of a few people who would enjoy it on my present list. 

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