It's often been observed that it's almost impossible to review anthologies because, with very few exceptions, every reader will find them a mixed-bag.It's often been observed that it's almost impossible to review anthologies because, with very few exceptions, every reader will find them a mixed-bag. For me, Silent Nights was no exception, with a few really good stories, a couple that fell flat, and the rest being enjoyable but not outstanding, earning a perfect average overall score. However, its editor, Martin Edwards, sets out in his introduction a very specific set of criteria: to find Golden Age mystery stories that properly capture both the style of the time and genre, and the festivity of the season, excluding some classics because he felt they were insufficiently Christmassy. So I decided to briefly review all the stories in the collection, giving not only my rating of them but how well I felt they ticked these two boxes. Basically, I'm a massive book nerd who got tipsy during Christmas Week and and decided to apply qualitative methods of investigation to a pseudo-scientific assessment of "Christmassy-ness" and "mysteriousness". It really says a lot more about me than it does about these stories.
"The Blue Carbuncle" by Arthur Conan Doyle * * * * As Christmassy as sitting through a marathon of every ITV Golden Age mystery Christmas special (Holmes, Poirot, Marple, the lot). This is possibly the genre-defining cozy Christmas mystery and one I've read many times before, which actually makes it very hard to rate. But I love it.
"Parlour Tricks" by Ralph Plummer * * As Christmassy as spending Christmas Day visiting a run-down old folks' home (you know it's Christmas, but nobody there seems that fussed about it). The parlour tricks of the title are about as diverting as they would be in real life, giving the story a very linear one-note feel; the mystery element arrives too late, and is a little too thin.
"A Happy Solution" by Raymund Allen * * * As Christmassy as returning to your family home to settle in for Christmas, and lots of neighbours are visiting, and it slowly dawns on you that they all recognise you but you've got no clue who they are. This is a very clever mystery with well sketched-out characters, but the solution requires a truly expert knowledge of chess to really understand.
"The Flying Stars" by G. K. Chesterton * * * * As Christmassy as a Christmas card showing a picture of a quintessential English Country Manor in Winter Wonderland mode. With "The Blue Carbuncle", one of two stories in this anthology I'd read before. Featuring Father Brown, it of course has a touch too much coincidence and a hint of moralising, but figuring it out makes you feel just clever enough.
"Stuffing" by Edgar Wallace * * As Christmassy as moving house on Boxing Day. This one was ripped so directly from "The Blue Carbuncle" I'm surprised it was included. Also not helped in that it featured what I think was a proofreading error that slightly upset the meaning, and kept me confused and distracted for most of the story.
"The Unknown Murderer" by H. C. Bailey * * * * As Christmassy as rushing around to visit all your relatives on Christmas Eve. The ending to this one is fairly heavily telegraphed but the solution is just up in the air enough to make you feel clever anyway. The "nice guy" detective's way of dealing with the criminal is pretty messed up, though.
"The Absconding Treasurer" by J. Jefferson Farjeon * * * As Christmassy as waking up on Christmas morning to see that all the snow has melted. The overall story in this one is actually quite neatly done - it's the lack of seasonal atmosphere, combined with the absence of a distinct motive for the criminal as opposed to all the other suspects, that made this good-but-not-great.
"The Necklace of Pearls" by Dorothy L. Sayers * * * As Christmassy as being forced to play party games, but then actually really enjoying them. This is a Lord Peter Wimsey story, so a clever plot was guaranteed; a bit let down by a very abrupt ending, but otherwise what you'd expect from the cozier end of Sayers' crime fiction spectrum.
"The Case is Altered" by Margery Allingham * * * As Christmassy as a workplace Christmas party at a super fancy venue. Featuring a plot that borrows heavily from Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", but with an admittedly festive setting. I enjoyed reading it at the time, but it's one of the less memorable in the collection with a few days' hindsight.
"Waxworks" by Ethel Lina White * * * * As Christmassy as working on Christmas Day because you're basically indifferent to the whole celebration. This one has nothing to do with its (seemingly shoehorned in) Christmas Eve/Day setting, but it is very spooky and satisfying to read; more of a thriller than a mystery, with a neat twist at the end.
"Cambric Tea" by Marjorie Bowen * * * As Christmassy as the holiday season being entirely overshadowed by family drama. This is more of a how-dunnit than a who-dunnit once it gets going; it features Dickensian levels of coincidence with the long-lost relationships between the characters, as well as hinging on a sudden sentimental (though downplayed as such) change of heart.
"The Chinese Apple" by Joseph Shearing * * * * So deliberately un-Christmassy it comes full circle and becomes Christmassy all over again, like spending Christmas Eve alone in a haunted house. This is another one that's more of a thriller than the mystery, since no attempt is made to hide the telegraphing of the solution early on; but the story is more concerned with its gloomy and menacing atmosphere, set in a classic foggy London street by gaslight.
"A Problem in White" by Nicholas Blake * * * Technically set around New Year's, but nevertheless there is nothing more seasonal than British public transport held up due to snow. A brave attempt at one of those mysteries you can solve yourself and then skip to the back for the correct solution; however, most of the "cleverly inserted clues" only make sense after you've identified the correct suspect.
"The Name on the Window" by Edmund Crispin * * * As Christmassy as telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve night, but getting a little too into it and upsetting a few more suggestible guests. The unusual choice of locked-room for this particular mystery was superb, but the actions taken by the characters were a little confusing to visualise - and the solution was let down by the fact that the writer had clearly never cleaned a window (it wouldn't work like that).
"Beef for Christmas" by Leo Bruce * * * * As Christmassy as deciding just to lean in to all the worst parts of a family Christmas and make sure that at least you're having fun, even if it's by trolling everyone else. This is one of those rare short stories that's got just the right amount of detail and twist to fit its length perfectly, helped along by a likable and gently satirical anti-Holmes detective....more