Title – Murder on Christmas Eve
Author – Compilation of short stories edited by Cecily Gayford
Published – 2017
Genre – Crime fiction
I’m not someone who tends to read ‘seasonal’ fiction, if anything I prefer to read books set in a different season to the one I’m in. Who doesn’t want to escape into the hot sun when they’re stuck in a dreary British winter? But in this case I couldn’t resist the cover!
The stories are from a mix of writers, both contemporary (Ian Rankin, for example) to more classic crime (John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham). The setting for all is around Christmas but some are more ‘festive’ than others. I’ve read some good crime fiction short stories but the quality of these was a bit hit and miss. With the stories being written decades apart it’s difficult to know if they had all been specifically written as a Christmas short story or if they were just what the editor managed to find.
The GK Chesterton story was the longest and was a very complete puzzle and it’s always good to see Father Brown. Although I did feel that the story could have finished a few pages before it did and it wasn’t really connected to Christmas. I also enjoyed the first story ‘The Trinity Cat’, by Margery Allingham, this is probably the closest to my expectations of what the stories would be like. Many of the other stories were about a sleight of hand or a misunderstanding – perhaps the limitations of the short story format meant that this was the easiest was to present a puzzle and solve it. And some of them managed to miss the mark completely.
The collection is short and perhaps would make a good present for someone who isn’t normally a crime fiction fan.
Title – Ford County
Author – John Grisham
Published – 2009
Genre – Legal
Ford County is the setting for a number of Grisham’s trademark legal thrillers, including A Time to Kill, and in this case provides the location for a series of short stories.
Following quickly on the heels of 20th Century Ghosts this was another disappointing collection of short stories. I had expected that because the stories shared the same setting that they would have something in common – a location, a character or similar thread providing a connection, but no. In fact the setting didn’t seem particularly important and if they had been set in a number of different locations I’m not sure it would have made any difference.
The stories themselves were based around a legal premise although not all involved lawyers but for the most part they seemed to lack much in thrills, or legal twists. At best focussing on the characters in the stories and often delivering a moral message these weren’t engaging and I felt as if they were working towards some sort of climax but they failed to carry through.
Not a collection I would recommend.
Title – 20th Century Ghosts
Author – Joe Hill
Published – 2005
Genre – Horror
This is is a short story collection and is the first of Joe Hill’s work that I’ve read, despite having seen him on his book tour for The Fireman.
One of the real highlights of the collection is the variety of the stories and the distinctiveness of the different voices. The stories make an interesting combination, some like ‘Best New Horror’ are a very conventional approach to horror where others have more of a fantasy feel to them. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) many of the stories have a more poignant and touching aspect to them, and there seems to be a thread running through a number of stories featuring children and childhood.
I particularly enjoyed ‘Pop Art’ which was both funny and moving. ‘Art’ is Arthur Ross, an inflatable Jewish boy. The narrator has a difficult home life with an unpleasant father and Art’s family provides a stark contrast, but Art is inflatable. The author has thought through the disadvantages of being inflatable, for example unable to speak Art has to write his thoughts on a pad, but of course this must be in crayon as a sharpened pencil could be deadly… The story is about the relationship between the two boys but inevitably being inflatable is Art’s defining characteristic.
The last story in the collection, ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a chilling horror without any gore or shocks, but nonetheless gripping and was probably the highlight for me. Was this the author saving the best until last? The story is narrated by Nolan but is about his younger brother Morris, a little boy diagnosed with some mental health problems. But that’s not what makes Morris different. Morris likes to construct things, starting with paper cups he moves on to cardboard boxes, the designs becoming ever more elaborate and complex, but the structures have a sinister side.
On the other hand there were some stories that I just didn’t get. I’m not a reader that likes to be confused – I like clear resolution and explanation, a direct take on the genre, so more ambiguous stories like ‘My Father’s Mask’ just left me puzzled with more questions than answers.
Collections of short stories make a welcome break from novels and although they don’t make for the same sort of escapism there’s a lot to be said for being able to distill a piece of prose into the length of a train journey. This collection was a bit of a mixed bag for me though.
Title – The Starlings & Other Stories edited by Anne Cleeves
Author – Murder Squad and accomplices
Published – Sept 2015
Genre – Crime fiction
The Starlings & Other Stories is a compilation of crime and mystery short stories inspired by 12 photographs taken by David Wilson of rural Pembrokeshire. David takes atmospheric and evocative black and white pictures of the Welsh landscape and these have inspired a series of equally dark and tense short stories. The authors are a collective of six crime writers from the North of England (the Murder Squad) and six ‘accomplices’, and it is edited by one of the authors, Anne Cleeves, who has also written a short ‘Vera’ story as her own contribution. The authors all chose a different one of David’s photos to inspire their stories – and the use of the images provides a theme which links the stories, rooting them in the Welsh setting.
The stories themselves take a mix of approaches, from the contemporary to the historical, from conventional crime to stories with a more supernatural slant. For me the standout story was actually the first one in the book, ‘Homecoming’ by Cath Staincliffe. As I’ve discovered with other fiction I’ve read of Cath’s she does a brilliant job of developing the emotional aspect of a mystery and that’s not an easy feat in the context of a short story.
The collection is accompanied by the glossy photos that were the inspiration and this makes for an unusually beautiful crime fiction book. As well as being excellent photographs, using the set of images as a theme for the anthology gives a similarity between the stories that makes this a cohesive collection making this a worthwhile buy for any crime fiction lover.
Many thanks to Graffeg for the review copy.