Monday, December 02, 2013

Christmas crime

{Photos by rocketlass.} I've become a big fan the "Big Book of" anthologies that Otto Penzler (and, one presumes, his small team of Oompa-Loompas) has been editing the past few years for Black Lizard. The Big Book of Ghost Stories has whiled away October nights for two years now, with many more to come, while The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps makes great reading to accompany Donald E. Westlake's reflections on the history of the private eye in "The Hardboiled Dicks." (What's that you say? Oh, right, sorry--you'll have to wait until next September to read that, when The Getaway Car comes out to read that essay. It's a present for next Christmas. Meanwhile, however, the Big Book of Pulps is, as its name suggests, big, so you can get started now without qualms.)

This year brings the volume that is at the same time the most unexpected and most useful: it's The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. As a fan of holiday episodes--there's nothing like Jack Benny shopping, or trimming the tree with bubble gum bubbles--I've always appreciated a seasonal story, but in these fallow days for magazine stories, I'm unlikely to run across a Christmas mystery. Otto Penzler has solved that problem with 650 pages of stories from the past century. Like Penzler's other anthologies, it's a nice mix of old chestnuts and less-expected names: Agatha Christie stories bookend the volume, and Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Edgar Wallace, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout all make appearances, but so do Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Max Allan Collins, Thomas Hardy (really--that Thomas Hardy), Stanley Ellin, Isaac Asimov, and John Mortimer. The stories are a mix of charming and hard-boiled, and while I expect that none of them will change your life (even your reading life), the ones I've read thus far have all offered the unmatched pleasure of a well-told tale.

I'll close tonight with the beginning to the Ellery Queen story, "The Adventure of the Dauphin's Doll" (1948). I'll quote at a bit more length than usual to get you through the whole opening:
There is a law among storytellers originally passed by Editors at the cries (they say) of their constituents, which states that stories about Christmas shall have children in them. This Christmas story is no exception; indeed, misopedists will complain that we have overdone it. And we confess in advance that this is also a story about Dolls, and that Santa Claus comes into it, and even a Thief; though as to this last, whoever he was--and that was one of the questions--he was certainly not Barabbas, even parabolically.

Another section of the statute governing Christmas stories provides that they shall incline towards Sweetness and Light. The first arises, of course, from the orphans and the never-souring nature of the annual Miracle; as for Light, it will be provided at the end, as usual, by that luminous prodigy, Ellery Queen. The reader of gloomier temper will also find a large measure of Darkness, in the person and works of one who, at least in Inspector Queen's harassed view, was certainly the Prince of that region. His name, by the way, was not Satan, it was Comus; and this is paradox enow, since the original Comus, as everyone knows, was the god of festive joy and mirth, emotions not commonly associated with the Underworld. As Ellery struggled to embrace his phantom foe, he puzzled over this non sequiter in vain; in vain, that is, until Nikki Porter, no scorner of the obvious, suggested that he might seek the answer where any ordinary mortal would go at once. And there, to the great man's mortification, it was indeed to be found: On page 262b of Volume 6, Colbe to Damasci, of the 175th Anniversary edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A French conjurer of that name--Comus--performing in London in the year 1789 caused his wife to vanish from the top of a table--the very first time, it appeared, that this feat, uxorial or otherwise, had been accomplished without the aid of mirrors. To track his dark adversary's nom de nuit to its historic lair gave Ellery his only glint of satisfaction until that blessed moment when light burst all around him and exorcised the darkness, Prince and all.

But this is chaos.

Our story properly begins not with our invisible character but with our dead one.
And off it goes. I'd actually never read Queen before, and I was so pleasantly surprised by the light, even effervescent tone of the opening, the obvious fun that Queen was taking in the crafting of sentences that while the rest of the mystery can't quite live up to the fun of its entrance, that was a small matter.

I think I may adopt "But this is chaos!" as a refrain in all sorts of writing.

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