Day 1296: The Battle of Life

Cover to Dickens Christmas booksAs has been my tradition for several years, only missing the year I moved to Washington, I am reviewing one of Dickens’s Christmas books for the Christmas season. I only have one left, so I’ll have to think up a new tradition in a couple of years.

The Battle of Life begins with a section about a battle that was fought years before on the site of the main characters’ home. I thought that since Dickens’s Christmas books often involve ghosts, this battle might be the source of a ghost story, but no. Apparently, this section is just an extended and rather laborious metaphor.

In any case, we soon meet the Jeddlers, who are celebrating some important birthdays. It is the birthday of Marian, the younger and more beautiful Jeddler sister, who is provisionally engaged to Alfred Heathfield, Dr. Jeddler’s ward. It is also Alfred’s birthday. This day he will be released from his wardship and travel to the continent to study medicine. In three years, he will return and marry Marian, if they are both so inclined. There is something odd, however, in the way in which Marian bids farewell to her sweetheart, looking at her sister Grace all the while.

Illustration from The Battle of LifeIn the second part, the plot thickens. It is three years later. Alfred is due back, but another player has entered the scene. Michael Warden has ruined himself with his spendthrift ways and meets with his solicitors, Snitchey and Craggs, to discuss how he might save himself. Snitchey and Craggs have already appeared as Alfred and Dr. Jeddler’s solicitors and provide some of the typical Dickens comedy, along with their wives. During this meeting, Warden states his intention of eloping with Marian Jeddler. Could Marian be contemplating an elopement just when Alfred is due home?

This novella about two sisters each of whom is ready to sacrifice her own happiness for the other is a little predictable but makes a touching, if slightly sappy, story. As one of Dickens’s Christmas books, I would rate it below A Christmas Carol but above the others, especially The Chimes. I have one more to read, and next Christmas will show how well I liked it.

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Day 1160: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

Cover for The Mistletoe MurderThe Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is a short collection of four previously uncollected stories by P. D. James. Two of them are set at Christmas, and two feature Adam Dalgliesh, one when he was a newly made sergeant.

“The Mistletoe Murder” is written as a reminiscence, as if it really happened, and P. D. James herself is a character (or the unnamed narrator is a mystery writer). A war widow, she is invited for Christmas at her grandmother’s house, after years of a family feud. There she spends almost all of Christmas Day with her cousin Paul. Another guest is Rowland Maybrick, who has been invited to value a coin collection and whom the narrator finds unappealing. The next morning, he is found with his head smashed in.

“A Very Commonplace Murder” is about an unpleasant man, Ernest Gabriel, and his memory of a murder. Having sneaked into the office at night to view a pornography collection owned by his deceased employer, Gabriel witnesses an illicit love affair going on next door. When the woman is murdered, Gabriel knows her young lover did not do it, but will he give evidence?

In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Adam Dalgliesh’s godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale, receives an inheritance from his stepgrandmother. But 67 years ago, Allie Boxdale was famously tried for the murder of her elderly husband. Although she was not found guilty, the Canon asks Dalgliesh to help determine whether she was or not before he can accept the legacy.

Finally, in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” young Sergeant Dalgliesh is flagged down on the road to his aunt’s house in Suffolk by Helmut Harkerville, who wants to report his uncle’s suicide and says his phone is out of order. Adam takes him to a phone box but then brings him home to inspect the scene. There he spots 12 clues that tell him this was a murder and the identity of the murderer.

In general, I don’t much enjoy crime short stories because they don’t allow time to develop a plot or characters so must rely on tricks. These stories, though, were a little more clever and interesting than the usual. I only guessed the solution to the second story, and I think some of the clues in the last were not fairly revealed. But the first and third stories held surprises. Overall, this was a set of entertaining mystery stories, much lighter than James’s usual fare.

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Day 1152: The Ghost of Christmas Past

Cover for The Ghost of Christmas PastI was amused by the sprightliness and humor of Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness novel that I read recently, so I thought I’d try one of her Molly Murphy novels. I saw this one listed on Netgalley and requested it.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is the 19th Molly Murphy novel, so it’s hard to say if I’d have been more impressed with an earlier book in the series. The series has won Agatha awards, so I assume so.

Molly is an Irish immigrant who by this novel is married to Daniel, a New York City police captain. Molly is in a depression. Her husband had problems with Tammany Hall, causing him to take some work in San Francisco from a government agency in the previous book. She followed him in time for the 1906 earthquake and lost her baby. Daniel’s employment prospects are up in the air, and Molly does not want to move away from her close friends in their New York neighborhood. And Bridey, an Irish girl she took in and learned to love, is being reclaimed by her father to return to Ireland. Finally, Molly returns from taking care of her mother-in-law to find that the Christmas she expected to have with her neighbors will not be because Gus and Sid are going away to spend it with friends.

Molly and Daniel get an invitation to spend Christmas with her mother-in-law at the stately home of Cedric Von Aiken in upstate New York. There, they find a gloomy family, haunted by the disappearance of the couple’s three-year-old daughter ten years before. Molly thinks it unlikely that the little girl supposedly dressed herself, put on her coat, opened the heavy front door, and walked out by herself. But her footprints and hers alone were found in the snow going to a nearby creek.

Of course, Molly decides to try to figure out what happened. Of course, we have the dynamic of the protesting husband that has made me tired of other series featuring a crime-solving wife.

link to NetgalleyAside from there being no sign of the other series’ humor and lightness, the plot of the novel is just too unlikely and the solution has been used before. Spoiler, although I will not be specific: an unexpected arrival is oddly time to coincide with Molly’s visit to the house. But that’s not the biggest coincidence.

Finally, the novel and dialogue are fleshed out just enough to propel the plot along, and when we come to the problem of Bridey, the behavior of those involved and their remarks are comic in their obviousness. Not one of my favorite books, for sure.

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Day 1013: Mystery in White

Cover for Mystery in WhiteI have made it a tradition the past few years to review a Dickens Christmas story at Christmas time. We moved in October, though, so I have not yet unearthed my collection of Dickens Christmas stories. Wanting to read something seasonal, I settled on Mystery in White, which is set on Christmas Eve and Day and is also a sort of ghost story, which fits my tradition.

A heavy snowfall halts a trainful of people on their way to various Christmas gatherings. They are sitting there wondering how long they’ll be stuck when an older man, Mr. Maltby, a psychic researcher, abruptly leaves the train to walk to another station.

This action inspires a group of young people to follow him. They are a brother and sister, David and Lydia Carrington; a chorus girl, Jessie Noyes; and a young clerk, Robert Thomson. The only passenger from their car who stays is a blowhard.

Shortly after leaving the train, the party loses Mr. Maltby’s path and gets into difficulties in the snow. Luckily, they eventually find a house, but it has been left in a strange condition. The front door is unlocked, water is on the boil, tea is prepared, but no one is in the house.

Feeling they have no choice but to take shelter, the four make themselves at home. Jessie has sprained her ankle and Mr. Thomson becomes very ill. Mr. Maltby soon appears with another man, and the blowhard shows up. Soon, some of the party begin to feel uncomfortable in the house. Mr. Maltby is certain that something unpleasant has happened there, and the party soon learns that there was a murder on the train.

I have recently read several John Bude mysteries from the same period, and I admit to preferring Farjeon. He spends a lot more time with his characters instead of creating elaborate puzzles. I found this novel a pleasant way to spend a chilly December evening.

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Day 825: The Cricket on the Hearth

Cover for The Cricket on the HearthA year ago I reviewed two of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories at Christmas time, and since I have a book containing all of them, I thought I’d continue the tradition.

We first meet the Peerybingles in their home, made cheerful by a bustling wife and a cricket on the hearth. John Peerybingle is an honest carter, quite a few years older than his wife. They have a baby and a clumsy maid named Miss Slowboy.

The plot is simple. It is the eve of the marriage of Mr. Tackleton to a much younger bride, May. He comes to invite the Peerybingles to the wedding as an example of a happy May-December union. But the wedding is set for the couple’s anniversary, and they have plans to spend it alone. Still, they include May in a visit to the house of their friend Caleb Plummer and his blind daughter Bertha. An unexpected visitor is with them—a deaf old man who accepted a ride in John’s cart but seems to have nowhere to go.

Mr. Tackleton is not a nice man. He’s been a grasping employer and landlord to Caleb, and it is clear that May is reluctant to marry him. At a point in the evening, Mr. Tackleton takes John aside and shows him something that makes him think his wife has deceived him.

This story is not one of Dickens’ best. Its pleasures are in its scenes of idealized domestic happiness in the Peerybingle home. But since we can’t reconcile our first glimpses of the Peerybingles with any such betrayal as alleged, we’re not in much doubt that everything will turn out to be a misunderstanding. Most of the characters are mere sketches, the only ones even slightly developed are the Peerybingles and Caleb and Bertha Plummer.

Since I recently read Dickens’ biography, though, I was interested in his little fantasy about marriage, particularly it being between two people so disparate in age, years before his affair with Nelly Ternan but only a few years after his wife’s younger sister, Georgina, moved in to live with them.

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Day 771: The Santa Klaus Murder

Cover for The Santa Klaus MurderIt’s Christmas time at the home of the overbearing Sir Osmond Melbury, and the entire family is gathered together for the holidays at his bidding. Sir Osmond is a mean old man who uses the promise of his fortune—or the threat of disinheritance—to keep his family in line.

Sir Osmond has arranged a visit from Santa Klaus and is disappointed when the Santa suit he ordered doesn’t appear on time. But the store sends out another suit and Sir Osmond presses a guest, Oliver Whitcombe, into putting it on and delivering gifts to the children. While the children are playing with Christmas crackers, Sir Osmond is shot to death in his study and Oliver finds the body.

Colonel Halstock, the investigating constable, establishes that Sir Osmond did not commit suicide. He also finds that Sir Osmond planned to rewrite his will, leaving his property in different proportions to his family and his secretary than originally planned. He did not execute the will, so did the murderer kill him to prevent the change, or did he think the new will was already in effect?

Colonel Halstock is left with a house full of suspects who all seem to be hiding something. At the suggestion of Kenneth Stour, a former suitor of Sir Osmond’s daughter Lady Evershot, he asks several of the guests to write up their accounts of the days leading up to Christmas and the event itself. These accounts form the first chapters of the novel.

link to NetgalleyThis is a complex mystery mostly because of the number of people in the house at the time of the murder and the effort of keeping track of where they all were. It is almost completely dependent on opportunity, as all of the characters have the same basic motive. I had a hard time keeping some of the characters straight, and only a few distinct personalities emerge. Still, the tone of this novel is not as distant as that of some of the other Golden Age mysteries I’ve read lately, and I enjoyed it. It will be available October 6 from Poisoned Pen Press.

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Day 631: Two Christmas Novels by Dickens

Cover for A Christmas CarolIn the spirit of the season, I thought I’d take a look at a collection I have of Charles Dickens Christmas books. As you may know, Dickens wrote a short Christmas book every year for years. A Christmas Carol was the first one, and it did much to revive Dickens’ career, which was flagging after Martin Chuzzlewit. My book contains the Christmas stories in order, and this Christmas I have read the first two.

Dickens is closely associated with Christmas. He didn’t invent our current traditions, but through his glimpses of how happy families celebrated it, some traditions were probably set and promulgated.

The introduction to this collection admits that A Christmas Carol is the best of the Christmas books, which is probably why it is most well known and adapted. Still, it has been a long time since I read it, and I found it interesting to compare it with the screen renditions, with which I am more familiar. (In my opinion, the best one because of its atmosphere is the 1951 version with Alistair Sim—but only in black and white, mind.) What stood out the most is that in one of the movies, Scrooge actually fires Bob Cratchit, a cruel joke even if only momentary, but he does not in the book. The movies also seem to put more or less of Scrooge’s nephew Fred in them, depending.

Of course, A Christmas Carol is the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who has grown so obsessed with the accumulation of wealth that he has given up all pleasure and human companionship, and even worse, from Dickens’ point of view, all charity. Through the intercession of his dead partner Jacob Marley and the visits of three ghosts, he gets a second chance to be a better person.

chimesI haven’t read any of the others before, but I found The Chimes to be a similar story. Trotty Veck is a poor porter. He lives nearby a church that has a set of bells considered to be haunted. But Trotty likes the bells and in his simple way is always praising them.

One day an overbearing alderman makes some comments to Richard, who is the fiancé of Trotty’s beloved daughter Margaret, about how foolish he is as a young man to be getting married. Richard and Margaret are to be married New Years’ Day, and when Trotty sees Margaret in tears later, he thinks the alderman’s comments have caused Richard to break it off. This and other encounters cause Trotty to have doubts about the goodness of humankind. Later, the bells lure Trotty up to the bell tower and teach him a lesson.

The lesson of this story is much more garbled than that of A Christmas Carol. Since Trotty’s thinking processes are a bit murky at times, I wasn’t even sure exactly how Trotty supposedly transgressed the bells. Still, Dickens always manages to bring a tear to your eyes when he tries.


Day 446: Holiday Story! Spirit of Steamboat

Cover for Spirit of SteamboatWhen Craig Johnson was asked to write a Walt Longmire story for Christmas, he got a little carried away and wrote a novella, Spirit of Steamboat.

A strange oriental woman shows up at the Sheriff’s Office in Durant on Christmas Eve and asks to speak to the sheriff. When Walt comes out to see her, she asks if he recognizes her and also wants to meet the previous sheriff. A mystified Walt takes her to see old Lucian Connelly at the rest home, to whom she says one word, “Steamboat.”

The story returns 25 years to another Christmas Eve. Walt has just become sheriff, and he receives a call that a helicopter is bringing in a child who has been injured and burned in a car accident. If she can’t be flown to Denver immediately for burn treatment, she will die. Unfortunately, Wyoming is in the midst of a violent blizzard, and the airport doesn’t have a plane big enough to fly in the storm.

Well, it has one, but no one to fly the old B-25 bomber named Steamboat, which is in questionable condition. Walt rousts out Lucius, a former World War II pilot who took part in the Doolittle Raid. Because Lucius only has one leg, he needs a copilot, so Julie Leurman comes along, a pilot certainly, but not one certified to fly that class of planes. When the helicopter arrives with the girl and her grandmother, the EMT refuses to come, so Walt enlists the terrified Dr. Isaac Bloomfield to care for the girl during the flight. Although everyone at the airport thinks they are insane, soon the six of them are aloft.

This novella is not a mystery but a straight adventure story. Although the outcome is never in question given the beginning of the book, it is still quite exciting, with medical emergencies, equipment problems, and horrible weather conditions. The novella also contains nuggets of information about WW II era planes and about Steamboat, the emblem of Wyoming, a famous rodeo bronc for which the plane is named. This is a quick, enjoyable read containing a bit of sentiment for the holidays.