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A Surprise at Christmas – in more ways than one! :D @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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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!)

Murder and mayhem down by the Thames…. @BritLibPublishing #BLCC #JosephineBell

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It’s fairly obvious from even a casual glance at the Ramblings that I love to read Golden Age crime; as I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up reading Agatha Christie (and still love her) and have also read many of the greats in my time. So I’ve obviously taken comfort from the wonderful output from the British Library in their Crime Classics range, and continue to find the standard of stories they issue high. Interestingly, recently titles have pushed the envelope a little, which is fascinating; some stories edging closer to more modern times, and encompassing the changes taking place in society in 1960s, and embracing the police procedural, rather than the famous detective in a country house setting. However, my most recent read of one of their books, originally published in 1938, introduces a milieu which is miles away from the usual affluent surroundings – and that book is “The Port of London Murders” by Josephine Bell.

As Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, Bell has already made an appearance in the BL series, with short stories in the “Crimson Snow” and “Deep Waters” collections. This novel is an early one by the author, and it’s set around the Port of London and on the river Thames in that fascinating period between the two wars when many people were struggling to make a living. As the book opens, the San Angelo drifts into port having survived dreadful storms in the Bay of Biscay. The ship is late, and as well as its cargo being delayed, some of it has been lost in the river. We’re introduced early to the two main characters, Harry Reed and June Harvey, both of whom live by the Thames; Harry saves June’s young brother Leslie from drowning, sustaining an injury in the process and two are drawn together. Both are from working class backgrounds; but June works in a lingerie shop and is attracting the attention of the flashy Gordon Longford who moves in more exalted circles and seems to have very suspect connections. Meanwhile, the police are trying to uncover dodgy dealings and drug smuggling down by the river – although one of their officers may be getting too close for comfort. Mix in a murder or two, a little illegal salvaging, some very inquisitive schoolboys, a few larger than life working class families and a somewhat dubious doctor, and you have quite the recipe for an absorbing and exciting mystery!

It’s the setting, of course, that makes this book stand out initially. As a hinted above, this is miles away from a country house or a small cosy English village; instead we are in an area where life is often brutal and short, work is hard and exhausting, and scraping a living to bring up your family is never easy. There are glimpses of the struggles and the poverty in the scenes involving various medics and a Relieving Officer, who try to do their best to help those in need but with limited resources. In these pre-NHS days, getting a doctor out if you were ill was expensive; and there seems to have been little aid available to those who couldn’t work because of illness. This background, and the awareness of the grim poverty which existed, is unusual in Golden Age crime, and adds a fascinating element to the book.

As for the story itself, well it’s really unputdownable. Bell writes well, portrays her locations and characters vividly, and really brings this lost world to life. Harry and June, a little tentative and unsure of each other at first, are an engaging pair and both are very cleverly woven into the plot. The latter itself is very twisty and turny, and although we know fairly early on who the villains are, it’s entertaining watching how they try to escape justice and how the various arms of the law do their best to encirle them. I shall say nothing about the ending of the book except that it is dramatic and fitting and very satisfying!

On the evidence of this and the short stories, Bell is definitely an author I’d like to read more by, and “Port” is an excellent additon to the BLCC range. There is perhaps a slight touch of cliché in her working class characters’ dialogue (although it may be accurate to the time – and she did research the River Police and their work whilst writing the book, so may well have mingled with Thameside locals); but this never gets in the way of the story. The subject matter (drug addiction and smuggling, murder, poverty) is actually quite dark, but that adds to a gritty portrayal of hard-working life in the 1930s. However, she balances this with some wonderful humour, particularly in her portrayal of two families, the Popes and the Dunwoodys, locked in neighbourly rivalry. The saga of their move from dilapidated soon-to-be demolished houses into more modern flats is a hoot, and also very telling of its time. And Bell’s creation of Leslie Harvey is particularly memorable – writing a convincing child character can be difficult, and Leslie is a believable scamp, somewhat reminiscent of the gang of boys in the wonderful Ealing film “Hue and Cry”.

“The Port of London Murders” was my final read in November, a difficult reading month at times which was redeemed at the end! It was entertaining from start to finish, a real joy, and evidence if it were needed that the quality of releases in the British Library Crime Classics series is not dropping. These books have brought me much comfort this year, and I suspect this won’t be last one I read before 2020 is over!

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

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