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 1150: Snowdrift and Other Stories

Cover for Snowdrift and Other StoriesI keep saying I love Georgette Heyer, so of course when a volume of her short stories appeared on Netgalley, I requested it. Originally, the story collection was released as Pistols for Two, so I’m sure I read it years before but did not remember the stories.

Each of these stories is a romance in miniature. They involve some of Heyer’s hallmarks—cases of mistaken identity, elopements gone wrong, accidental encounters, and a couple of duels. Appealing heroines meet attractive men usually while they are engaged in some mistaken folly.

link to NetgalleyThese are delightful, light stories, perfect for a rainy day and a cup of tea. This is a very short review, but if you like a charming romance laced with humor, you can’t go wrong with Georgette Heyer.

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Day 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

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Day 1037: The Bloody Chamber

Cover for The Bloody ChamberBecause a few months ago there was some mini hooplah about The Bloody Chamber, I thought it was a recent book, but it turns out Angela Carter died in 1992. I was totally unaware of her unique work.

The Bloody Chamber is a series of fairy tales and legends, retold. In them, heroines strip away their passivity. Some of the tales are gruesome, and all of them feature blood.

“The Bloody Chamber” is the story of Bluebeard retold. The young bride sells herself for riches and is taken to a castle floating in the sea. Her husband tempts her to look in the forbidden room by his very act of forbidding it, and she finds a slaughterhouse. When he returns unexpectedly, her intrepid mother saves her life.

I won’t tell the ending of the others, but Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast are all featured. The prose is gorgeous, with startling images and strong feminist themes, and Carter has a fascination with wolves.

This book will probably not be for you if you are at all squeamish. I am not, and some of it was a bit much for me. Still, it is a quick read, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

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Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 979: Literary Wives! American Housewife: Stories

Cover for American HousewifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Strange short stories seem to be one of the newest literary fads, and Helen Ellis’s certainly qualify. Not only are many of the stories in this selection strange, but her approach to a few of them is unusual, those stories consisting only of lists. Her heroines are frequently demented.

“What I Do All Day” is one of those list stories, recounting the events of the daily life of a housewife with too little to do. “The Wainscotting War” is about a feud between co-op owners over the decor of a shared hallway. This story features a woman who becomes unhinged by this disagreement, losing her job and her husband because of her behavior.

My favorite story is “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” in which an author agrees to compete on a reality show. I liked this one because it sends up so-called reality television while having mostly likable characters. But some of the other stories just go too far over the top for me, like the one about the novel sponsored by Tampax, although I get the underlying message about what it takes to get some writers to write. Of course, one of Ellis’s main tools is exaggeration, and sometimes it is funny.

What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

It’s hard to generalize about marriage from these stories as the husbands are mostly in the background. Only in “Dead Doormen,” about how a wife takes over from her mother-in-law in caring for her husband’s position on the condo board, is their relationship at all stressed, and in this case, her husband is a privileged slob whom women control. Sometimes the husband is referred to affectionately, but often ironically, as when one narrator’s husband gives her a warm kiss every morning, but that’s the only one she ever gets. Although some of these wives work, most of them seem to be idle or to wait on their husbands hand and foot. I don’t get the feeling that Ellis’s housewife is representative of the women I know. On the other hand, maybe the term “housewife” is used ironically, as it is an old-fashioned word. Most of these stories seem to be steeped in irony and exaggeration.

Day 806: Silent Nights

Cover for Silent NightsSilent Nights is a collection of classic mystery stories set at Christmastime. Represented are well-known writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as writers who are not as well known now, such as Ethel Lina White and Leo Bruce. At least, I am no expert, but I have not heard of them before.

Like most mystery short stories I’ve read, these are more concerned with posing a puzzle. They are not long enough for much serious characterization or detailed plotting. Still, I found some of them surprisingly effective.

In “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White, for example, atmosphere is created in a story of a female reporter who decides to spend the night in a haunted wax museum. She is stalked there by a jealous coworker.

“Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace has an ending reminiscent of “The Gift of the Magi” in which the ill-gotten gains from a robbery that are hidden in the crop of a Christmas turkey end up in the hands of a poor, innocent couple about to depart for Canada. They think both the turkey and the money are gifts from the woman’s rich uncle.

In “The Unknown Murderer,” H. C. Bailey’s detective Dr. Reggie Fortune figures out the game of a pathological murderer. In “Cambric Tea” by Margery Bower, a jealous man tries to frame two innocent people for murder.

link to NetgalleyNot all are that successful. “A Problem in White” by Nicholas Blake doesn’t tell the solution (which I guessed) unless you turn to the back of the book. “The Name on the Window” by Edmund Crispin depends its puzzle on which side of the window the victim supposedly wrote the name of his attacker. Yet for this solution, we must suppose that the victim was stabbed and then walked around a building and down a long hallway for no apparent reason than that he could collapse on the other side of the window. Not, I think, the behavior of a dying man. (And, typically, he didn’t just write the name of his attacker; he hinted at it.)

In any case, this collection made me interested in looking for some of the longer works by some of these authors.

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