Vicious crime at Christmastime?
Murder most foul as kiddies sing and sleigh bells ring?
Poison in the punch? Cyanide in the pudding?
Ye gods, what unspeakable horror!
Penzler, writer, publisher and proprietor of Manhattan’s Mysterious Bookshop, draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of English-language crime fiction to give us a panoramic look at outstanding stories from the late 19th century to the early 21st. There are celebrated writers here — Thomas Hardy, John D. MacDonald, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Robert Louis Stevenson — and others undeservedly forgotten. Happily, the stories don’t offer much violence and gore; it’s mostly offstage. Indeed, one of the joys of the collection is how many are delightfully funny.
In Damon Runyon’s “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” first published in 1932, Dancing Dan and his bartender pal Good Time Charley get loaded on Tom and Jerrys with their friend Ooky, who’s wearing a Santa suit as part of some holiday scam. After Ooky passes out, Dancing Dan borrows his Santa outfit and the two celebrants march up Broadway to deliver holiday cheer to a lady of their acquaintance. Then:
“We are somewhat embarrassed when a lot of little kids going home with their parents from a late Christmas party gather about Santa Claus with shouts of childish glee, and some of them wish to climb up Santa Claus’s legs. Naturally, Santa Claus gets a little peevish and calls them a few names, and one of the parents comes up and wishes to know what is the idea of Santa Claus using such language, and Santa Claus takes a punch at the parent, all of which is no doubt astonishing to the little kids who have an idea of Santa Claus as a very kindly old guy.”
In Andrew Klavan’s “The Killer Christian,” first published in 2007, we meet Sarkesian, who is both a devout Catholic and a hit man for the mob. How can one man be both? The narrator explains: “He was stupid.” Sarkesian is assigned to eliminate a weasel named Steven Bean, whereupon Bean seeks refuge with his sister, Hailey, an aspiring actress. It happens that Hailey is rehearsing a way-off-Broadway production of “Angels in America,” wherein she plays the angel. The killer Christian enters the theater during a rehearsal, as Hailey, adorned with huge wings and a white robe, is dangling 10 feet above the stage. Hailey recognizes the mobster and cries, “Sarkesian — repent!” The pious hit man, face to face with an angel, quickly decides he must protect the weasel, not kill him, whereupon — skipping ahead a bit — the saga climaxes with a shootout at (of all places) the nearby Mysterious Bookshop.
Penzler serves up a predictably deadly serious Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” but he precedes it with four parodies of Holmes. One is by Peter Todd, who in the early 20th century wrote popular tales about Herlock Shomes and his crime-fighting partner, Jetson, who share quarters on Shaker Street, London. Let’s face it, Holmes is a hugely inviting target for parody.
In Mary Higgins Clark’s “That’s the Ticket,” a dope named Ernie Bean (yes, another Bean) wins $2 million in the lottery while his wife is out of town. Ernie proceeds to his favorite bar, gets knee-walking drunk and blabs of his good fortune to an aging temptress named Loretta Thistlebottom. He wakes the next morning without the lottery ticket, and the rest of the story relates his wife’s campaign to recover it.
Two of the finest stories in the collection concern Catholic clerics who solve crimes but prefer to save souls. In “The Flying Stars,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1911, G.K. Chesterton’s beloved Father Brown (whom Penzler rates second only to Holmes among English detectives) solves the theft of precious diamonds at a boisterous gathering of swells.
The other cleric, Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk in 12th-century Shropshire, was the creation of the prolific Ellis Peters, the pen name of Edith Pargeter, who wrote 20 Brother Cadfael novels between 1977 and 1994. The story included here, “The Price of Light,” concerns a rich, brutish old knight who, worried about his soul, donates two fine silver candlesticks to the abbey where Brother Cadfael resides. The knight is accompanied to the abbey by his much younger wife and a handsome young groom who proves to be her lover. Someone steals the candlesticks, and Brother Cadfael calmly moves to put things right. This long, elegant story is a highlight of the collection.
Note that many of these stories turn on simple theft, of diamonds or candlesticks or a lottery ticket; they hark back to simpler days before the modern thriller began to provide endless serial killers and ax murderers for our edification. To read today’s talented crime writers can be a pleasure, but it’s good to be reminded that they build on the work of others whose talents remain undimmed. Anyone who cares about the best mystery writing of the past century and beyond would be lucky to receive this thick volume during the holidays.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE BIG BOOK OF CHRISTMAS MYSTERIES
Edited by Otto Penzler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. 654 pp. Paperback, $25