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
I feel like I want to give this book a higher rating, because Pearce is obviously a good writer and there wasn't really a point while I was reading itI feel like I want to give this book a higher rating, because Pearce is obviously a good writer and there wasn't really a point while I was reading it when I wasn't enjoying it - though it never got thrilling, it was a nice easy read, yet the characters were surprisingly well drawn (with just one or two sparing details each nevertheless giving a strong impression of each of them - with the possible exception of the series detective). The dialogue-heavy writing made it quite pacy and at a slight 220 pages it certainly never dragged.
However, I finished the book with a definite feeling of "is that it"? I worked out who the murderers were fairly quickly - turns out the answer to the question "whodunnit" was "the only characters who were built up enough to be in the running while also being suspicious enough to have any possible shade of motive". The reveal of the main conspirator's identity is undramatic - which feels especially wrong since the revelation is made to a female relative who dotes on and adores him, but then carries on with her day as if nothing had happened (it explicitly says as much in the text) - and the full revelation of his motives doesn't feel entirely satisfying; nor does his casual punishment. There's a nice subplot involving an English schoolboy on holiday who befriends a Maltese girl, but this never fully ties in with the main mystery, and also necessitates an abrupt-feeling epilogue set several years in the future to wrap up their story line. And for saying this is apparently the last in a series (I confess to not having read any of the others, which might explain why I never felt like Seymour was getting as much characterisation as everyone else) there's no real conclusion for the characters whom I assume make up the regular cast, despite a couple of issues being raised that could have done with some resolution. Plus - and this is the only part that really left me disappointed - despite Pearce's reputation for vivid recreations of the locales in his novels, I never particularly felt that Malta was being drawn in any great detail. Which is sad for me, because the only reason I picked up the book in the first place was my hope to conjure some happy memories of a holiday in Malta a couple of years ago.
I would recommend this if you're going on holiday to Malta and want some light reading to take with you - like most cozy mysteries, it would make a lovely pool read. But sadly, I can already tell a day after finishing it that there was really nothing here to make it memorable. I would give it 2.5 stars if Goodreads allowed....more