Over the last few years, the lovely people at the British Library have got into the habit of bringing out a Christmas crime classic which makes ideal reading in the run up to the festive season. There have been novels, and last year a lovely short story collection. This year was no different, and so I was very happy happy joy joy when “A Surprise at Christmas” popped through my door. Selected by the series consultant, Martin Edwards, the book contains 12 seasonal mysteries from an excellent range of authors. It was the perfect book to turn to, particularly during a busy time at work and whilst attempting to fed off another reading slump; and it had an extra sting in the tale which I’ll get to later… ;D

Normally, when I feature short story collections on the Ramblings, I tend to pick out favourites or themes. However, this was such a strong selection I may end up mentioning them all! The book opens with The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep by Catharine Louisa Pirkis; she’s an author new to me, and this story introduces her detective Loveday Brooke and was published in 1893. It’s a satisfying and clever mystery and Brooke is a feisty heroine – I’d like to read more of her adventures! Next up is The Hole in the Wall by G.K. Chesterton; this tale doesn’t feature his usual detective, Father Brown, but is from 1921 and the sleuthing is done by Horne Fisher. It’s a vaguely spooky tale with a very satisfying end. Then there’s Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh; I read a *lot* of Marsh back in the day, and this lives up to the standard I expect from her. An elderly tyrant is found dead by his radio; was he electrocuted? And how? And which of his bullied family could be responsible? Great fun!

The Marsh is followed by Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson (pen name of John Dickson Carr). Needless to say, there’s a kind of locked room mystery, but there are spooky elements and the bulk of the story is set in the past. I found this to be one I needed to read in daylight…. Trailing after the Dickson is Dead Man’s Hand by E.R. Punshon; the latter is again an author I’ve not come across before, but I loved this short and punchy story about the effects of guilt – excellent stuff! Then we have The Christmas Eve Ghost by Ernest Dudley, with a slightly more noir setting and a clever trap to catch a killer. Dick Whittington’s Cat, which follows, is by Victor Canning, a prolific author much neglected nowadays. I don’t think he’s usually remembered for his mysteries, but this clever seasonal tale of burglary is very entertaining.

The title story, by Cyril Hare, is another short punchy one about how retribution for past wicked deeds can come at the most unlikely time and in the most unlikely fashion – great fun! This is followed by another big name in crime writing, Margery Allingham with On Christmas Day in the Morning. A postie has been found dead, but proving how he was killed is impossible because of the route he took on his round. It will take all of Mr. Campion’s empathy to unravel the sad solution behind things. Give Me A Ring by Anthony Gilbert is the longest entry in the collection, at around 80 pages almost stretching to a novella; and it’s most entertaining, telling a nail-biting tale of an innocent young woman who strays into the path of some dangerous criminals during a London fog; the tension does ramp up towards the end! And finally there’s The Turn Again Bell by Barry Perowne, which is more of a slightly spooky Christmas tale than a mystery, but it’s an enjoyable and fitting end to the book.

What do these books have in common? Hint – it’s *not* that they’re about Christmas…. ;D

The observant amongst you will notice that the above adds up to 11 stories – and the one I want to mention last is the Surprise for Christmas I mentioned above! The tale is called Father Christmas Comes to Orbins by Julian Symons, and it’s a brilliant story of a meticulously planned burglary that goes wrong. However, as I read it I was hit by a massive attack of deja vu and became convinced that I’d read something very like it before. I had a dig through some of my other BL short story collections and could find nothing, until I suddenly hit on the idea of looking at last year’s festive book, “The Christmas Card Crime”. It did indeed feature a Symons story, entitled ‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip – and as I looked at the opening pages of that one, I realised that they were indeed the same story!! (Which is proof that I *do* actually remember what I read).

Looking at the introductions, it seems that the original version (Orbins) was published in 1963 in the Illustrated London News; the later one (Twixt) was published in 1965 in the Ellery Queen Magazine. So I presume that the title was changed for the US and that’s where the confusion arose! I was quite amused after I’d worked out what was going on, and relieved to find I wasn’t going completely insane. And it *is* a good story and definitely deserves to be featured in these collections – whichever title it’s under! 😀

Anyway, that’s by the by; the bottom line is that this is a really strong collection of Christmas stories in the BLCC range; the quality is high, the stories are entertaining, mystifying, sometimes spooky and very Christmassy. I can really recommend this collection – it’s perfect reading for the time of year!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)