It’s only right that the cover of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (designed by Joe Montgomery) features the illustration of a beautiful blond in a reddish coat carrying a gun, because like the book it graces, the image transports us to pulpy novels that featured more femmes fatales, double crossing and deceit than you can shake a peppermint candy cane at.
In his introduction, editor Otto Penzler explains that his book is meant to be enjoyed by the “curmudgeons” who resent the happiness Christmas brings with it. “While most of us are busy shopping for gifts, for those we love, or decorating our home and putting up a Christmas tree… [the curmudgeons] will find solace in the fact that crime, violence and even murder continue to flourish at what should be a time of peace, joy and love” he explains.
His compilation of mysteries that take time around the holidays is meant to be presented with a certain tongue in cheek touch, “think of how often terrible events have been recounted with the sad or angry exclamation ‘and at Christmas time!’? he continues. His book is also offered as a noble attempt at “counterprogramming” of sorts, for he adds that while the holidays present people with more periods of leisure, these are mostly spent in activities that rarely seem to include reading.
Featuring a total of 60 tales, some of which have been out of print for decades, The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries is divided into chapters that ought to satiate the appetite of anyone interested in the very particular theme. From “A Sherlockian Little Christmas” (which obviously includes a story by Arthur Conan Doyle), to the mindfuckery of “A Puzzling Little Christmas”, the book allows readers to decide the mood they’re in before digging into the stories.
For those who love a classic mystery, the very first story in the book is by none other than Agatha Christie, who in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” has her famous Hercule Poirot solve a murder that involves, well, puddings. Noteworthy for Christie’s peculiar sense of humor (“I’ve never seen anything look so dead” described Poirot of the victim) the story leads to a wonderful conclusion in which the famous detective acknowledges that crimes and all, he still had a very good Christmas. Needless to say so, by the end of this tale, one will most likely have also developed a craving for pudding.
Each story in the book is preceded by a short biography of their author, which will help readers become familiar with people they’ve never heard of before. Penzler does a great job in summing up why these authors’ work is worth reading and summarizes essential themes that encompass their careers. When writing about Catherine Aird he smartly points out that “[her] detective stories are notable for their sense of fair play—that nice, old-fashioned notion that the author should have her detective actually solve mysteries by observation and deduction—not by sheer luck, coincidence or via confession” he explains, before we read her story “Gold, Frankincense and Murder” which was first published in 1995.
Story after story we find ourselves not being shocked and distanced from the tales of horror and deceit in front of us, but instead each turn of the page ignites a spark of morbid pleasure, as we wonder how will the next entry outdo the previous one. Reading Thomas Hardy’s “The Thieves Who Couldn’t Stop Sneezing” (originally published in 1877) we are warned that this won’t be a tale of gloom, the likes of which are always associated with Hardy, because he had reached a point in his career where he was literally afraid that he would be burned at the stake by angry religious people who found his books vulgar and sinful. At a mere four pages the story feels like a delightful one-act play in which a group of burglars find themselves at the mercy of their most basic human needs. It is a riot and couldn’t be further from the doomed sense of tragedy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Modern tales like Doug Allyn’s “An Early Christmas” which even mentions the characters watching Jay Leno on TV would seem slightly out of place if they weren’t also obvious homages to other mystery classics and just when you’d thought things couldn’t get any weirder you turn the page and find yourself in the presence of a tale by Isaac Asimov, in which a curmudgeon (very much like the type of person the editor thinks would be reading this) finds himself intrigued by a warning about a terrorist attack occurring on the Soviet offices at the United Nations. Published in 1977 but written in the style of a ‘40s caper, the very short tale, has Asimov’s hero solve the case by effortlessly using his vast knowledge of the beliefs of various religious groups. It’s intellectual crime solving of the highest order, especially how the hero has his breakthrough taking part in a very Christmasy tradition he probably despises.
To go into detail about each and every story in The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries seems quite tempting, because other than a few oddities, there is not a single moment in the compilation that isn’t entertaining and interesting. It should rightfully become a perennial gift, no matter the occasion.