Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

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.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pile(s), Part Deux

Do not let my radio silence of recent weeks fool you.  In fact, I've been chipping away at the piles (and adding to them too, but that's another story).  And given that I'm up with a sick kid, I have the perfect opportunity to report in.  In the past month I've finished:

Kurt Vonnegut's famed oddity of a novel/memoir about the bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five or The Children's Crusade (1969).  I've already returned it to the library, so can't recall the edition I read.  This is not a mystery of course, although parts of it are indeed mysterious, I still don't quite get the whole Trafalmadore bit.  Apparently this story was criticized when it first came out for, I don't even know how to say this,  not blaming the Germans enough?  Somehow trivializing the Holocaust in comparison to this event?  I guess that anyone who is involved in those brutal last months of fighting across Europe, and lives through a firestorm and has to collect the bodies afterward can write about that experience any damn way he wants.

Speaking of Nazis, I also finished a slim little book called Saving Mozart (Europa Editions, 2013) by RaphaĆ«l Jerusalmy.  This takes the form of a diary kept by an aging music critic, as he withers away in a sanatorium outside of Vienna in the early years of World War 2.  He is upset at the Nazi's appropriation of Austrian culture and music and worst of all Mozart for their own hamfisted ends.  We can't really say brutal yet - sure there are arrests, and Jews disappear, and Our Hero's Jewishness - or not - is treated obliquely.  This is a surprisingly sweet story, for all the growing squalor of the narrator's condition, but also feels a bit naive.  Still, I suppose that one's personal acts of resistance, however small and ineffective, are what give dignity to the end of existence in this world.

Michael Dobbs' House of Cards (1989, this edition Sourcebooks 2014) is most certainly not a mystery, especially if you've seen the splendid BBC production (which I have) or the Netflix version (which I have not but understand was also splendid).  You pretty much know from the first time Our "Hero" Francis Urquart (a great name to say) is crossed, how that's going to play out.  It's not even a spectacularly well-written book.  But it's a great bit of insight into British parliamentary politics, and the press that covers that it, written with the authority that only a former insider of that world could deploy.  If you want to learn how the sausage is made in England, read House of Cards.  There are sequels, apparently, but I can't quite bring myself to read them just yet.  Need to wash off the ick of this one first.

Finally, and now for a real mystery, I'm still slogging through Ruth Rendell's surprisingly dull Not in the Flesh.  I'm clearly missing something, because Ruth Rendell is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest living mystery writers.  I just find the plot dull and the characters, with a few exceptions, not particularly interesting.  Is this one of those where you need to start at the beginning of the series?  I'm almost finished, but have been sidetracked by the delightful Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.

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The collection has been put together by Otto Penzler who is apparently a very famous editor of crime fiction.  You can read about him, and wonder if he is hiring, here.  So far, all of the stories have been British and delightfully Christmas-y, although I skipped for the moment Peter Lovesey's about a wife and child abuser who may meet a bad end.  Maybe they'll get weirder and darker, and that is OK, because you need a bit of darkness in the Season of Light.  But who can resist a bit of Hercule Poirot, this time of year, twirling his moustache and querying the cook about the pudding while the snow falls outside?  Not I!