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Friday, 2 December 2016

The Golden Age

The  Golden Age
and Christmas Stories.
by Carol Westron
Most writers would agree that the short detective story takes a lot of skill to write. To balance fair-play-clues with a suitable number of suspects, diversions and camouflage is hard enough, but to add in the trappings of Christmas and to maintain the right note of jollity when one of the revellers has been foully done to death is very hard indeed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that many Golden Age writers preferred their short stories to be centred around the theft of valuables, usually precious jewels, rather than murder beside the Christmas tree.

The short story is an ideal read in the busy time surrounding Christmas, when time, energy and concentration can all be in short supply. However, for many years, readers’ access to the classic, early 20th Century detective stories were limited to one or two stories by the few authors who had survived the ravages of time and remained in print: Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Christie, Sayers and Allingham. In the last couple of years the range has increased enormously with the British Library Crime Classics republication of several Christmas period short stories written by authors who were writing during the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. There are two Christmas/winter based anthologies consisting of short stories selected by Martin Edwards and each story has a short introduction by Edwards, offering information about the authors, some of whom have remained household names while others are almost forgotten. In 2015 The British Library published Silent Nights, which concentrates on Christmas stories. In 2016, Crimson Snow provides a selection of winter based tales, although Christmas is still the dominant feature in the majority of the stories. All the stories mentioned in this article appear in Silent Nights or Crimson Snow, with the exception of the two stories by Agatha Christie and The Queen’s Square (1931) by Dorothy L. Sayers.

The country house Christmas with its traditional food, customs and decorations forms an ideal setting for crime. There are large house parties, usually consisting of people who do not mix well together. Prolonged proximity, added to alcoholic excess, may lead to long-buried resentments resulting in violence. To add to the confusion, the ladies present wish to display their finest jewels and this tempts thieves, usually facilitated by games such as charades or amateur dramatics. Sadly the perpetrators are often men wearing fancy dress, quite possibly a red suit trimmed with fur. The jewel theft stories are usually light-hearted Christmas fare, indeed it sometimes seems that the authors were in competition to provide the most original, seasonal hiding place.

In the country house Christmas stories the aristocratic amateurs of crime are usually present as honoured guests, often betrayed by their own good-nature into being somewhere they do not wish to be. After all, what society hostess would not implore Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion to grace her gathering? In Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack (1936) Albert Campion is called upon to discover the truth behind stolen diamonds, but in The Case is Altered (1938) it is documents endangering national security that have been stolen and it is Campion’s task to retrieve them. Peter Wimsey tracks down stolen pearls in The Necklace of Pearls (1933), but in The Queen’s Square (1931), set at a Christmas-time ball, he has the more solemn task of identifying a murderer. In all four of the stolen valuables mysteries the detective smooths the way for a pair of young lovers who are being forced apart by unjust suspicions. This is also the case in G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story The Flying Stars (1911), in which the homely little priest helps a pair of young lovers, recovers stolen diamonds and - most important of all to him – saves a man’s soul, all against the background of Christmas revelry.

The private investigator is less likely to be an honoured Christmas guest at the country house Christmas. He is more likely to be employed on a case, although he is often camouflaged as a visitor. This is the case with Hercule Poirot in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960), in which Poirot is in pursuit of a stolen jewel which has been lost by a feckless young foreign Prince. Of course, for Poirot to accept the case there has to be more at stake than the mere loss of a jewel; if this ruby is not recovered it could cause scandal and an international incident. As implied by the title, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is a light-hearted seasonal romp, with Christmas decorations, customs and food – no prizes for guessing where the precious jewel is hidden. The seasonal tone is set by snow outside, and in the house are some lively young guests who are disappointed that Poirot does not look more like a detective and plan to put him through his paces. To spice things up,Poirot receives a mysterious note, warning him not to eat the Christmas pudding. Sherlock Holmes does not have to go away to discover his Christmas culinary crime, it is delivered to him in a goose that contains stolen treasure. (The Blue Carbuncle, 1892.)

A similar hiding place appears in Stuffing (1926) by Edgar Wallace, another Christmas story with a ‘feel-good’ ending. The most likeable characters in this story are John and Angela Willett. Despite the fact that Angela is the grand-niece of a shipping magnate they are struggling to make their way in the world and at the start of the story, ‘They lived in one furnished room in Pimlico... and they had the use of the kitchen.’

However they are about to emigrate to Canada and
‘He was confident that he would one day be a great engineer. She also believed in miracles.’ The story is written in Wallace’s usual laconic, cynical style but he does provide Angela with her Christmas miracle.

Christie’s other Christmas story was written thirty years earlier and is a far more solemn affair, as is also made clear by its title,
A Christmas Tragedy (1930.) In it Miss Marple describes a holiday at a small hotel at a Hydro, a place where invalids, usually elderly, gather to drink healing waters. Miss Marple opens her account with the chilling words, ‘I felt no doubt in my mind the first moment I saw the Sanders together that he meant to do away with her.’ This story has little of Christmas about it, apart from some references to buying presents and the delays caused by the holiday period. It is a melancholy story of a man whom Miss Marple is sure is planning to kill his wife but when tragedy strikes, the husband has an alibi. Miss Marple has to face the fact that she may have been wrong and yet she feels the coincidence is too great.

As Christie demonstrates so skilfully, not all Christmas-time stories are feel-good.
The Chinese Apple (1948) by Joseph Shearing (a pen-name used by Marjorie Bowen) is a dark and brooding story about bad memories and regret. The Carol Singers (1963) by Josephine Bell, is about the vulnerability and isolation of old age.

This story uses the device so popular decades earlier of concealing valuable jewellery as decorations on a Christmas tree, but the old lady who does so loses something more valuable than diamonds – her life.

In the Crimson Snow anthology the story that precedes The Carol Singers is Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert which features deep snow and carol singers, as the King Wenceslas title implies. It is a cleverly structured story with a humorous twist at its end and, this time, the carol singers are innocent of any crime.

Snow features a great deal in Christmas short stories, as it does in many full-length Christmas and winter mysteries. Thick layers of snow cut off country houses and village communities from the outside world and, even when the ways in and out are navigable, a lack of footprints limits the people who could commit the crime. Travel is also an important issue, both by motor car and train. In The Case is Altered, Albert Campion’s observations of his travelling companions are integral to solving the crime and in Nicholas Blake’s A Problem in White (1949), the whole investigation of a crime occurs on a snow-bound train travelling to Scotland.

Many Golden Age writers drew on Dickensian-style descriptions of Christmas festivities. In Chesterton’s The Flying Stars the thief reminisces about his final crime and observes, ‘“Well, my last crime was a Christmas crime, a cheery, cosy, English middle-class crime; a crime of Charles Dickens. I did it in a good old middle-class house near Putney... I really think my imitation of Dickens’s style was dexterous and literary. It seems almost a pity I repented the same evening.”’
Many writers also draw on the Dickensian tradition of giving gifts or parties for the less fortunate, whether it be people who live on the squire’s estate or local orphans. Edmund Crispin’s eccentric but amusing story, The Name on the Window (1953), begins with Gervase Fen surveying the wreckage left after a party for local orphans, when Detective Inspector Humbleby of Scotland Yard arrives on his doorstep begging a bed for the night because he is marooned by the snow. The orphans’ party is irrelevant to the mystery which Humbleby describes to Fen will solve, although it sets the Christmas scene. The true detective story involves a ghost hunt and murder in a pavilion in the grounds of a country house, and Fen solves the crime in a masterly manner without leaving his own home.

The Unknown Murderer (1923) by H.C. Bailey has a party at an orphanage as its beginning and at its core. The usually facetious Dr Reggie Fortune is deeply angered when a murder destroys the orphans’ pleasure. ‘“I don’t like this murder,” said Reggie. “It spoilt the children’s party.”’ The investigating officer thinks that this is unfortunate but irrelevant, but Fortune already senses the envy and cruelty that form the motive for the murder and other crimes that follow it.

Another truly Dickensian tradition adopted by the writers of the Golden Age is ghost stories. What better way to set the scene for suspicious death than with a dark tale of spectral hauntings while snow and ice cut the revellers off from the outside world and the wind howls mournfully around the ancient house or castle that boasts a haunted room, where, of course, some foolhardy young man is persuaded to spend the night rather than face the mockery of his peers. The Ghost’s Touch (1906) by Fergus Hume and Death in December (1946) by Victor Gunn are good examples of such atmospheric detective stories.

The Ghost’s Touch is a pre-Golden Age story told in the First Person narration of an army doctor, Dr Lascelles, who has features in common with his more famous colleague, Dr Watson. Lascelles is invited by a wealthy but physically frail Australian acquaintance, Percy Ringan, to spend Christmas at his cousin’s home Ringshaw Manor, and on Christmas Eve, the owner of the house, Frank Ringan, tells the story of the haunted bedroom and the fate of those who sleep in it. When a fire in his room forces Percy to sleep in the haunted bedroom, the scene is set for a classic detective/ghost story.

Death in December is a long short story, possibly a novella, featuring Gunn’s detective, Chief Inspector Bill ‘Ironsides’ Cromwell. Cromwell has been invited by his junior officer, Johnny Lister, to spend Christmas at Lister’s father’s newly inherited home, Cloon Castle. The castle is situated in Derbyshire, on top of what Ironsides bitterly describes as a mountain, and it is in a dilapidated state. Of course, when the house party is gathered the snowfall thickens and Cloon Castle is cut off from the outside world. Equally inevitably, the castle boasts a haunted room, the Death Room. This haunted room has been closed up for years but the young men of the party, fortified by too much Christmas wine, insist on opening it to look, and a particularly supercilious young man, Ronnie Charton is goaded into spending the night in the Death Room.

Most chilling of all Christmas ghost stories, is the unusual story written by Ethel Lina White, Waxworks (1935.) A murder has already taken place in the town’s waxwork museum and Sonia Jackson, a young journalist, decides to spend the night there to discover the truth about what is going on. Sonia starts off full of confidence but, as the night progresses, it seems to her that the waxworks come to life, but is it the supernatural or a mortal enemy that threatens her?

Not all Christmas stories are set amongst the upper classes. Indeed Conan Doyle’s superb Sherlock Holmes story, The Blue Carbuncle (1892), is based on the provenance of a goose that comes into Holmes’ possession. The goose had been given out at a ‘goose-club’ run by the landlord of an inn, the recipient having paid a few pence every week throughout the year. This is a magnificent early Christmas story, which ends with Holmes showing mercy to a thief and commenting to Watson that ‘“it is the season of forgiveness.”’ The Absconding Treasurer (1925-27) by J. Jefferson Farjeon is a darker tale, also centred around a Christmas club, this time the Slate Club, and the fate of the money entrusted to the club’s treasurer who has disappeared, presumably with ninety three pounds, eight shillings and two pence of the members’ money, which came to three pounds ten shillings each, a considerable loss to the working class families.

Between them the two anthologies contain twenty-six stories, with only Edgar Wallace and Margery Allingham being represented in both. Hopefully this means that there should be several stories to suit everybody. The mixture of stories in Silent Nights and Crimson Snow are carefully balanced to include authors who are still well known and others who are almost forgotten. They are also skilfully balanced in the positioning of stories within the anthology.

Silent Nights begins with the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Blue Carbuncle, in which Holmes, a reasonably prosperous and highly educated, Victorian gentleman detective, is interesting himself in the affairs of those so poor they have to save all year to afford a Christmas goose. The anthology ends with Beef for Christmas (1957) by Leo Bruce. The Beef in question is not a joint of meat but Sergeant Beef, a working class man who had been a country policeman and now is employed as a private detective. Nobody could be a greater contrast to Holmes than Beef with his ‘raw red face and straggling ginger moustache.’ He is unashamedly brash and vulgar but a shrewd detective, and he too has a narrator, the prim Lionel Townsend, who often feels (as Watson does with Holmes) that his subject does not fully appreciate all he has done to spread word of his fame.

In Crimson Snow the reader travels from the Edwardian ghost-crime story, The Ghost’s Touch, to nearly fifty years later and the sad story of old age and vulnerability in The Carol Singers. All the stories are set at or around Christmas with one notable exception, Off the Tiles (1952) by Ianthe Jerrold. Off the Tiles is a quiet, middle-class, domestic crime story, in which a death on a gloomy November night appears to be an accident but then doubts are raised about whether the victim was careless or whether she was pushed.

Crimson Snow and Silent Nights are two excellent anthologies with interesting introductions to each story. They have given me a taste of many Golden Age authors that I had not tried before and I look forward to reading more of these writers’ work. I recommend that readers who enjoy classic crime treat themselves to an early Christmas present.

The Thirteen Problems (containing A Christmas Tragedy)
by Agatha Christie
Published by Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0007120864

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie
Published by Harper Collins.ISBN: 978-0008164980

Hangman’s Holiday (containing The Queen’s Square) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Published by Hodder.ISBN: 978-0450019609

Silent Nights edited by Martin Edwards
Published by the British Library.
ISBN: 978-07123-5610-7. ASIN: B0111Y3D1G
The Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
Parlour tricks by Ralph Plummer
A Happy Solution by Raymund Allen
The Flying Stars by G.K. Chesterton
Stuffing by Edgar Wallace
The Unknown Murderer by H.C. Bailey
The Absconding Treasurer by J. Jefferson Fargeon
The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Case is Altered by Margery Allingham’s
Waxworks by Ethel Lina White
Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen
The Chinese Apple by Joseph Shearing
A Problem in White by Nicholas Blake
The Name on the Window by Edmund Crispin
Beef for Christmas by Leo Bruce.

Crimson Snow edited by Martin Edwards
Published by the British Library.
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5665-7. ASIN: B0111Y3D1G
The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume
The Chopham Affair by Edgar Wallace
The Man with the Sack by Margery Allingham’s
Christmas Eve by S.C. Roberts
Death in December by Victor Gunn
Murder at Christmas by Christopher Bush
Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold
Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings
The Santa Claus Club by Julian Symons
Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert
The Carol Singers by Josephine Bell

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.


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