I did mention this delightful anthology in my last post, but want to say again how much I am enjoying The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013). Otto Penzler's collection of short stories, all set at Christmas time or having to do with Christmas, manages to bring a warm holiday glow while simultaneously delivering delicious murder, mayhem, and genteel (so far) freakiness.
The too-large book (bathtub readers be warned. AND the type is tiny and in two columns per page!) is divided into sections like "A Traditional Little Christmas," "A Pulpy Little Christmas," "A Puzzling Little Christmas," and so on. Many of the big names are here - Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Sara Paretsky, Peter Lovesy - and yes, I'd say there is a distinct nod toward the British. Well, they do Christmas well there (if you don't believe me, read Miranda Hart's hilarious chapter on Chrimbo in Is It Just Me?), and crime too of course, so there is a good fit. All are short stories, no chapters, and while some feature marquee investigators, others are one-offs. The pacing of short stories has taken some getting used to. But the atmospherics here absolutely rock: thickly falling snow, twinkling trees, pooling blood, dingy flats, lonely old people. There is terrific writing too, I'm sorry I haven't dog-eared any examples for you. Of course the advantage to the short story anthology is to highlight differences in style, so you get a taste of everything. It all feels a bit like a splendid holiday party buffet, with one delectable once-a-year-treat after another.
I'm not even half-way through, but have met several authors I've never heard of - Josphine Bell, Barry Perowne, Stanley Ellin - which doesn't mean anything because according to Penzler's introductions, they are pretty much all crime-fiction-world-famous, or were in their day. My one quibble with this collection, beyond the physical structure of the book, are those introductions. Penzler does an excellent job of introducing the author, and giving of sense of his or her oeuvre, and most famous characters. But he almost never says when the story about to be read was actually written, only that it was previously included in some other Christmas anthology.
Dear Monsieur Poirot is here, as is grumpy old Morse and the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson. But I've never read the famous Ellery Queen, and loved his marvelously wise-cracking tale set in New York City in the late '40s. This whole collection can serve as one big to-read list. The best - so far - was an eerie and ultimately horrifying number from Sara Moody called "More Than Flesh and Blood" which held me rapt for all five of its creepy pages. Where do people come up with this stuff?
If you are searching for a good gift for a crime-passionate friend, this is the answer. But give it early because reading about holiday good cheer, or the lack thereof, in January, is just wrong.