December 2019


C. L. MOORE “Shambleau.” Novelette. Northwest Smith #1. First published in Weird tales, November 1833, First reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #7, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (Avon, softcover, 1948). First collected in Shambleau and Others (Gnome Press, hardcover, 1953).

   It begins as a well-constructed space opera should, taking some place in the future, but somehow ineffably combined with the legends of the past:

   MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half -mythical names — Atlantis, Mu — somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues — heard Venus’ people call their wet world “Sha-ardol” in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ guttural “Lakkdiz” from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.

   The story than continues with Northwest Smith rescuing a strange female but still alien creature from a mob intent on destroying her. Once they are both safe, Smith sees her in the passage that hints at even more eroticism to come. This would have been heady stuff back in 1933.

   She had risen soundlessly. He turned to face her, sheathing his gun and stared at first with curiosity and then in the entirely frank openness with which men regard that which is not wholly human. For she was not. He knew it at a glance, though the brown, sweet body was shaped like a woman’s and she wore the garment of scarlet — he saw it was leather — with an ease that few unhuman beings achieve toward clothing. He knew it from the moment he looked into her eyes, and a shiver of unrest went over him as he met them. They were frankly green as young grass, with slit-like, feline pupils that pulsed unceasingly, and there was a look of dark, animal wisdom in their depths — that look of the beast which sees more than man.

   The attraction between Smith and the Shambleau (for that is who she is) continues, until two nights later, as they share living (and sleeping) space, straight from pages of H. P. Lovecraft:

   She unfastened the last fold and whipped the turban off. From what he saw then Smith would have turned his eyes away— and he had looked on dreadful things before, without flinching — but he could not stir. He could only lie there on his elbow staring at the mass of scarlet, squirming — worms, hairs, what? — that writhed over her head in a dreadful mockery of ringlets. And it was lengthening, falling, somehow growing before his eyes, down over her shoulders in a spilling cascade, a mass that even at the beginning could never have been hidden under the skull-tight turban she had worn.

   He was beyond wondering, but he realized that. And still it squirmed and lengthened and fell, and she shook it out in a horrible travesty of a woman shaking out her unbound hair — until the unspeakable tangle of it — twisting, writhing, obscenely scarlet — hung to her waist and beyond, and still lengthened, an endless mass of crawling horror that until now, somehow, impossibly, had been hidden under the tight-bound turban. It was like a nest of blind, restless red worms … it was — it was like naked entrails endowed with an unnatural aliveness, terrible beyond words.

   Smith lay in the shadows, frozen without and within in a sick numbness that came of utter shock and revulsion.

   What comes next I leave to your imagination. But read it yourself, you should. You’ll never forget it. It is difficult to believe that this was C. L. Moore’s first published story. I do not know how long it took SF fans of the day to learn that “C. L.” stood for “Catherine Lucille,” nor what their reaction was wen they did, but I am indeed curious.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


ERNEST HAYCOX -Sundown Jim [or “Red Harvest Rides the Range”}. Little Brown, hardcover, 1937. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint, 1938. Pocket Book #573, paperback, 1949. Reprinted many times since. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1942, with John Kimbrough as Sundown Jim Majors.

   Haycox tended to make his heroes working men: miners, ranchers, freighters and such, but here the focus is on Jim Majors, a US Deputy Marshall sent to the town of Reservation, fast becoming a sanctuary for wanted men, to clear out the owlhoots and generally set things straight.

   Turns out, Reservation is the Western equivalent of Hammett’s “Poisonville,” a town so rife with corruption, warring factions and shifting alliances that it’s hard to tell who’s on which side at any given moment and fatal to misjudge. One sure-enough outlaw, Ben Maffit, has his eye on Katie Barr, daughter of the local cattle baron, and keeps his felonious followers allied against the smaller ranchers, but some of these lesser cattlemen are as bad as the Barrs and scarcely better than Maffit’s misfits – in fact, sometimes not as good.

   The situation is ripe for violence and Haycox ladles out plenty, done up in his terse, visceral style, but he also peoples the tale with some well-rounded and even memorable characters, and gives them enough ink to spread their wings and fly about the pages a bit. And this in turn motivates the plot as violence spreads throughout Reservation’s environs.

   There’s a dandy few pages here where, having de-fanged the cattle baron, Majors persuades the smaller ranchers not to take advantage of his weakness. They do it anyway, with decidedly mixed results, and then blame Majors for the ensuing tragedy. And it works on the page because Haycox has given us a few short scenes of each man debating the situation and deciding on violence.

   I have to say that the characters of Majors himself and Katie Barr never break free of the Hero and Heroine mold, but they don’t really need to; Haycox keeps things moving fast enough to cover for it, and the back-up band makes it all ring true.

MY FAVORITE TV SERIES
OF THE DECADE (2010-2019)
by Michael Shonk


   It is that time of year again when everyone makes a list, be it our list to Santa or the critic’s top ten list. This list has my favorite top 20 TV series that aired during the 2010s. I have separated them by type of TV it is: broadcast network, basic cable, premium cable, and streaming/apps.

   While the change from analog to digital television began in the 2000s the decade of 2010 will be remembered as when the digital era took over. It was a time that saw the fall of broadband network TV and the rise of digital streaming services. The major entertainment companies of the 20th Century – ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox as well as all of the major movie studios but Disney were swallowed up by conglomerates from outside Hollywood such as AT&T and Comcast. As Old Hollywood fell, new players rose such as Netflix and Apple creating a gold rush to find a spot in the future digital Hollywood.

   Broadcast TV is dying. Still regulated by the FCC, the major free networks continue to play it safe and cling to ancient formats such as episodic drama, sitcoms and police procedural.

   Despite that, my favorite TV series of the decade is the underrated PERSON OF INTEREST (CBS, 2011-16). The series’ only flaw was it was from formulaic CBS, the only network that would air the Second Coming as an episodic procedural. PERSON OF INTEREST was ahead of its time. It went from a weekly standalone episodes to an intriguing series with a continuing story foretelling our society’s fall into paranoia and fear. It was a world where America was becoming a bad guy, a corrupt government empowered by the rise of AIs.

           HONORABLE MENTION

FRINGE: (FOX, 2008-2013). FRINGE began as just another X-FILES copy but it did not take long for it to become a creative quality series featuring time travel and multi-universes.

ZERO HOUR: (ABC, 2012-13). ZERO HOUR was so bad it was good. Set in modern day with flashbacks to WWII, the series featured a never ending source of wacky troupes including an evil baby, Nazis, Rosicrucians guarding a doomsday device, twelve apostles each with a clock holding a clue leading to the device, a woman kidnapped from her clock shop, and her husband who finds among other things a frozen to death Nazi who could be his twin.


   Modern-day basic cable has always been a source of original programming. Networks such as USA and SYFY may have began producing cheap cheesy network knockoffs but today both and the rest of cable are willing to take risks the major networks won’t, and basic cable has improved because of it.

   My favorite basic cable series of the decade is JUSTIFIED (FX 2010-15). Based on Elmore Leonard’s characters and short story “Fire In the Hole” JUSTIFED was a violent crime drama set in Harlan County Kentucky. Marshall Raylan Givens was forced back to where he grew up and no one was happy.

   There he dealt with a complicated love life and some of the best Elmore Leonard type bad people on TV. Each season featured a different villain and crime, but what made the series so great was the special relationship between Raylan and local killer Boyd Crowder.

           HONORABLE MENTION

ARCHER: (FX, 2009-2016; FXX, 2017- present) – This animated classic with a flexible premise began as a 60s style spy series for the first four seasons. The series kept the characters and placed them in different situations. Season Five was Archer Vice with our heroes as the World’s worse drug dealers. In Season Six the group were hired by the CIA and found them selves in the middle of a Latin American revolution.

   This was followed by a season as they started a 1970-80s style TV PI agency in Los Angeles (promo below). Next was a 1940s style film noir called Archer Dreamland. Next was Season 9 and Archer Danger Island where our group races some pre-WWII Nazis for a treasure on a small island. Then it was Archer 1999 and stories spoofing science fiction. Coming soon will be Archer’s eleventh season, reportedly with everyone back in the spy business.

RUBICON: (AMC, 2010). Unusually intelligent for TV, RUBICON was about Will Travers who worked for a small Federal based spy agency. When his mentor dies, Will begins to suspect murder and uncovers a conspiracy. A suspenseful thought provoking series with a lack of car chases RUBICON was killed in the ratings by USA’s fun bimbo spy series with car chases COVERT AFFAIRS.

SHERLOCK: (BBC/PBS/BBCA, 2010-2017) – My favorite version of Sherlock Holmes. The writing was witty and intelligent in its adapting the Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories for a modern world. The casting worked, with Benedict Cumberbatch being the best ever to portray Holmes and Martin Freeman giving Watson new life.



VENTURE BROS
(Adult Swim, 2003- present). One of the TV’s funniest strangest TV series, the cartoon VENTURE BROS began as a parody of kids cartoons – in particularly JONNY QUEST. Quickly the series took on its own universe with its own absurdities. The video below is from the end of season five (2013). Season eight is scheduled to arrive sometime in the future.

WYNONNA EARP: (SYFY, 2016-present) Wyatt Earp’s demon killing gun has been past down through the Earp’s family first born sons until it ended up in the hands of a bad ass Wynonna. This series is over the top fun from the romances to the humor to the absurd violence as the gang sends countless demons back to Hell. The video below introduces the series that has been renewed for a fourth and fifth season.


   With the decrease in films aimed for adults and an increase in demand for TV series for adults, more and more premium channels are turning to original programming. Pay TV networks HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax have been joined by premium networks (you have to pay extra to get them) Starz, Epix, IFC, BBCA and others in producing original programs of high quality and adult content. These networks are also available on apps where you can pay for the network without having to subscribe to cable.

   My favorite of this group is DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY (BBCA 2016-17). BBC had attempted to bring Dirk to the small screen in a four-part miniseries in the early part of the decade but failed to capture Douglas Adams sense of humor and bizarre world.

In 2016 BBCA and Max Landis made a second attempt with Samuel Barnett as Dirk. While never a success beyond a cult audience of which I am a member, this version got two seasons and worked because Landis for the most part ignored the books and went with Douglas Adams style and humor. Douglas Adams himself had been quoted admitted he had his least success when he worried about plot or logic.

           HONORABLE MENTION:

COUNTERPART: (STARZ, 2016-2019) – This spy series was set against a backdrop of two different but connected Universes. During the Cold War there had been an accident and the Universe doubled leaving everyone with a physical double. Oddly, except for their looks the people were different than their counter in the other Universe.

   J.K. Simmons was brilliant as Howard Silk, a meek cog in our spy agency while his double was a ruthless man and one of the other side’s top spies. Where did Howard Silk’s path separate? How did the same man become a meek failure in one Universe and a ruthless success in the other?

DOCTOR WHO: (BBCA, Modern Version 2005 – present). DOCTOR WHO is an iconic British TV series that debuted in 1963. It is about an alien with a fondness for Earth who travels with companions through time and space in a 1960s blue British Police Box. This decade was a good one for Who’s fans.

   One of the best ideas DOCTOR WHO had was regeneration. Whenever the actor playing the Doctor wanted to leave the character would regenerate into a new version of the Doctor played by a different actor. There were four Doctor’s and three different showrunners during the 2010s. I found the era of showrunner Stephen Moffat (SHERLOCK) to be my favorite since the great days of Tom Baker the fourth Doctor.

   David Tennent as the tenth Doctor remains one the series most popular Doctors. He brought emotions to the character as Ten fell in love more than once and cried when it was his turn to leave. When showrunner Russell Davies – who had successfully brought the Doctor back to life in 2005 – decided to leave, Tennent left as well.

   2011 brought showrunner Stephen Moffat, and Matt Smith became the eleventh Doctor. Smith’s Doctor was an ancient alien carrying the burden of a tragic past while hiding behind a boyish face and child-like behavior.

   In 2014 Peter Capaldi became Doctor number twelve. His Doctor was more retrospective, rude, distant and uncomfortable around humans. It was his inner struggle to decide if he was good despite his past that made this Doctor the most dramatic.

   2018 marked the arrival of thirteen and the most controversial Doctor. Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to play the Doctor. As Mommy Doctor, Whittaker was the best part of last season. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s writing and changes were not to my taste. He had said the next season will be better. We can only hope the next decade for Doctor Who will be as entertaining and varied as the 2010 decade.

   Below is my favorite scene of the series. It stars Matt Smith my favorite Doctor since Tom Baker (#4).

PERPETULAL GRACE LTD (EPIX, 2019) was a quirky, at times totally incomprehensible, story told in a way that reminded me of old independent films. There was a sadness to the characters and their actions that was often hilarious.

   It featured a cast of doomed losers, those who would do anything to survive, those who blindly believe in others, and those who sought redemption but believed they didn’t deserve saving. The writing, acting and direction drew the viewers into the addictive story. One word of warning the series ended with a taunting cliffhanger and there is still no word of a second season.

WESTWORLD: (HBO, 2016-present). What began as a good book by Michael Crichton about an amusement part with robots serving the fantasies of the human guests has lead to two movie adaptations and one TV mini-series. This latest attempt to adapt the story is by far the best. This version of WESTWORLD added the point of view of the AIs (robots) to explore what is life. It can be too clever for its own good, but I really am looking forward to the coming third season.


   Streaming services have come a long way since NETFLIX killed Blockbuster rentals and decided to take on Hollywood. Streaming offers subscribers hundreds of more choices, return of long forgotten favorites, life to networks cancelled series, shows from all over the world and originals that before never would have ever been produced. It has freed us from the chains of TV schedules. It has given us a different way to watch TV as the impatient viewer can watch at the speed they want – one episode or as many as they are in the mood to watch or the entire season at one sitting.

   Netflix’s original RUSSIAN DOLL (2019) is my favorite streaming program of the 2010’s decade. Nadia is trying to survive her 36th birthday but she keeps dying. Characters in time loops are nothing new but RUSSIAN DOLL is surprisingly original. One of the best comedies of the decade made better by the brilliant acting by Natasha Lyonne as broken, foul mouth and sympathetic Nadia.

           HONORABLE MENTION

ACCA: 13 – TERRITORY INSPECTION DEPARTMENT (Funimation). This Japanese anime aired in 2017. Based on a light novel, ACCA is a delightful slice of life spy story that still makes me smile. ACCA is the agency that oversees all of the Kingdom of Dowa’s thirteen separate but equal states. A rumor of a possible coup in the peaceful kingdom has Chief Investigator Jean Otis investigating each of the 13 states.

BROKENWOOD MYSTERY: (New Zealand Prime TV 2014, airs on Acorn in United States). This folksy traditional mystery from New Zealand feels like THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW if ANDY had been one of those slow moving cozy traditional mysteries set in an odd small town with likable but strange characters that the British do so well.

   Detective Sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) leads Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland) and Detective Constable Sam Breen (Nic Sampson) as they solve challenging murders. The cast has a nice chemistry, the writing is witty and the characters are the type hard to find now a days – content, likeable and peaceful.

THE EXPANSE: (SYFY, 2015-18; AMAZON PRIME, 2019). SYFY produced some better than expected TV during the 2010s. The best was THE EXPANSE. Based on the books by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) THE EXPANSE is set in a time when humans have populated the solar system – the three major groups are those from Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid belt.

   The production values and special effect were too expensive for Syfy so the show was dropped and picked up by Amazon Prime. Prime offers all four series ready to watch. The video I selected explains the appeal of the series without giving away spoilers.

QUEENS OF MYSTERY (check out my review here on this blog)

STEINS;GATE (Funimation, premiered in Japan in 2011). Based on a light novel the story begins with an over the top mad scientist but things grow more serious as he and his friends find a way to send notes through time. Below is a dub in English of the first episode.


   The decade of 2010 has offered some on the best TV series in the history of television, sadly too many of which were not seen by most of American TV viewers including me. Cinemax’s JETT most likely would have made this list if I had had the time to finish watching it. I am sure there have been TV series this decade that would have made this list if I had spent more time watching TV and less time sleeping and having a life.

   Taste and opinion guide favorite or best lists. It os important to remember the quality of the beef means nothing to a vegetarian. You might notice I have a bias against the popular mainstream entertainment and favor the different, neglected and the weird. Fortunately there is a comment section for you to correct me and name your own favorites.

UNCUT GEMS. A24, 2019. Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, John Amos, Mike Francesa. Written & directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

   It is possible for an actor like Adam Sandler to be nominated for an Oscar? There’s talk about it, and if I weren’t totally out of the loop when it comes to Academy Awards (I have not had any interest in any of the films that have been nominated over the past several years, and I mean none), I’d say that the talk is entirely justified.

   He should be nominated, in other words, but whether he will be is another matter altogether. In Uncut Gems he plays Howard Ratner, a sleazy but only semi-shady jewelry store owner in Manhattan’s midtown diamond district. Always sharply dressed with a smile on his face, he’s always in trouble with his bookies, for one thing, and constantly juggling his bets around to pay off another.

   This a life that that not guarantee him a lot of friends. His marriage is crumbling, as much as he tries to save it, but having a mistress on the side does not help matters. His one hope, as the movie begins, is a rock he has managed to import from Ethopia containing what he thinks is a fortune in uncut gems. To this end, he attracts the attention of Boston Celtics basketball player Kevin Garnett (who very effectively plays himself) with whom Howard swaps the stone on a temporary basis for other’s NBA championship ring.

   Things do not go well. Howard’s minor victories always seem to have a catch to them, and as sharp as he outwardly thinks he is, the losses keep piling up. Whether we would ever hang out with such a character — I’m speaking you and I — is doubtful, but if you can watch this movie without empathizing with him, you’re a better person than I, Sandler’s portrayal of him is well-nigh perfect.

   You’ll have to judge the ending for yourself. I don’t think I was well enough prepared for it, and yet in retrospect, it’s also inevitable and fitting. Do be prepared for a non-stop torrent of F-words, and if you’re allergic to hand-held cameras you might want to stay away altogether.

   But if you do, you’ll miss the performance of Adam Sandler’s career. He fits the role of a small grifter of a man whose luck always turns out bad, no matter how hard he tries, as if the part was written for him — and if it was, then all due credit to the Safdie brothers as well.



               MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!

LADY OF BURLESQUE. MGM, 1943. Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O’Shea Michael O’Shea, J. Edward Bromberg, Iris Adrian, Gloria Dickson, Victoria Faust, Stephanie Bachelor, Charles Dingle, Pinky Lee, Janis Carter, Gerald Mohr. Screenplay: James Gunn, based on the novel The G-String Murders, by Gypsy Rose Lee. Director: William A. Wellman.

   I’ve read somewhere that the murder mystery portion of this movie stays fairly close to the book, but it’s been so long since I’ve read the book, so I can’t confirm that one way or another. Maybe someone reading this can say more for sure.

   One thing’s for sure: no one came to see this movie in 1943 wanting to see a murder mystery movie. No, what they obviously came to see was whatever they could glimpse of what was forbidden grounds for most of them, the world of burlesque, girls, strippers and goofy comics, but mostly strippers. (The trailer above doesn’t even mention the murders.)

   Well, they saw girls, all right, but strippers? In 1943? In the movies? Not from MGM and the Hays Code in full force, they didn’t. Bare legs and midriffs, and a hint of cleavage, but no more. The jokes are borderline risque, but still far north of the border, and of course as corny as you can get. I still laughed at some of them.

   Barbara Stanwyck may seem like a strange choice to play the lead dancer, but she turns to have been a pretty good hoofer, cartwheels and all. (If they used a stunt double for her, they certainly did a good job of it.) She also holds her own with the wisecracks, and of course deep inside, she has a heart of gold.

   Lots of backstage action, far more than what the audiences in their seats saw on stage, including a couple of murders that bring in the police, not quite as dumb as usual, to investigate. The mystery was only frosting on the cake, as far as I was concerned, and the cake was delicious.

RENNIE AIRTH – The Decent Inn of Death. John Madden & Angus Sinclair #6. Penguin, US, trade paperback, January 2020.

   The first joint adventure of Scotland Yard detectives (recorded in River of Darkness, 1999) took place in 1921. It wasn’t clear in what year The Decent Inn of Deceit happens, but both gentlemen are well settled in retirement., and my sense is that it happens in the early 50s, but I could be wrong about that. It’s certainly post WWII.

   Sinclair appears to be older of the two. They live close by, but Sinclair lives alone and has heart and/or blood pressure problems and is under the medical care of Madden’s wife Helen. He must carry his pills with him at all times, and of course this comes into play later on.

   It begins with a woman with a German background being fond dead in a brook, and in spite of the coroner’s report, her housemate does not think it was an accident. In spite of his age, Sinclair decides to follow up, not exactly believing her, but he knew has a nose for sniffing into things when they just don’t feel right.

   And eventually both he and Madden are trapped in a snowbound house, totally isolated from the rest of the world with a possible murderer, possibly a vicious serial killer, caught in the house with them. The list of those inside includes the owner, a vivacious woman in a wheelchair, her would-be suitor, her chauffeur, her cook, and her personal assistant.

   All of the detective work that gets them into this predicament takes place in the first third of the book. After that it’s an edge-of-seat suspense thriller. If I’m any kind of an example, the last fifty pages or so will fly by in a blur.

   I don’t know if this a book to be read in snowbound New England in January or not. It will only add to the chill. You might want to put off reading this one in the middle of July instead, but read it, I most definitely recommend you do.


      The John Madden & Angus Sinclair series —

1. River of Darkness (1999)
2. The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2004)
3. The Dead of Winter (2009)
4. The Reckoning (2014)
5. The Death of Kings (2017)
6. The Decent Inn of Death (2020)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


JOHN STEINBECK – East of Eden. Viking Press, hardcover, September 1952. Bantam F1267, paperback, 1954. Many later reprint editions. Film: Warner Brothers, 1955. With James Dean, Julie Harris, Richard Davalos, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, and Burl Ives. Director: Elia Kazan.

   I recently picked up East of Eden and had a go at it, and I can recommend it highly to anyone who loves that feeling of getting deeply immersed in a great trashy novel.

   Eden has it all: Sex, God, Violence, Love, Hate, Money … everything you look for in a trashy book, and so seldom find in a great one, put across with some of John Steinbeck’s finest prose, and that’s some of the best there is.

   There’s also something that appealed to me personally: late in he book there’s a brief fugue with a character named Joe Venuto, a cat-house ramrod — who would have been played in the 30s by Jack LaRue or in the 40s by Dan Duryea — who gets sent out by the Madame to round up a whore-errant.

   This leads to a passage like something out of a Gold Medal Original, with Joe haunting the shabby underworlds o nearby towns, than holing up in a sleazy hotel room with a pint of whiskey as he tries to figure out the angles.

   It’s classic hard-boiled stuff, and though this is just a minor bit in a panorama novel, I get the feeling if Ace or Avon had published East of Eden in the 50s, Joe would have been on the cover.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.

   To my mind, this is the greatest garage rock song of all time:

CHRISTMAS AND MAYHEM:
Five Seasonal Mystery Reviews
by David Vineyard.


   ’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even the corpse…

   Wrapping paper, ribbons, candy canes, and Christmas tree ornaments aren’t the only things that pile up around the holiday season, so do bodies, and almost from the start of the genre, the holiday of peace and love has also produced no few crimes and criminals.

   Sherlock Holmes made his debut back in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, and crime and murder were popular themes in numerous competing Christmas Annual‘s over the years. Since books had long been a traditional gift at Christmastime, it was no surprise as the genre became more popular publishers often scheduled their bestselling mystery writers books around the holiday season hoping readers would pick up a copy of the new work for themselves and as a gift.

   It was an ideal time for the genre in the Golden Age with families and friends gathered in tense stately mansions for a little mulled wine and cyanide, and the holiday often featured in classics of the genre.

   Here are just a few examples over the years from classic Golden Age to modern thrillers.


NICHOLAS BLAKE – Thou Shell of Death. Nigel Strangeways #2. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1936. US title: Shell of Death. Harper, hardcover. 1936.

   Nigel Strangeways is kept busy in his second outing, where he he encounters his wife Georgina for the second time, with no courting involved, and takes on a complex mystery that depends on a good use of snow and an adventurous finale.


  MICHAEL INNES – Appleby’s End. John Appleby #10. Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1945. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1945.

   Appleby’s End is a train station, not the finish of John Appleby, where young Detective Inspector John Appleby of Scotland Yard is deposited and becomes involved in the affairs of the Raven family in one of Innes’s best fantasmagorical outings. There are curses, pulp fiction, seeming lunacy that is eventually explained, actual lunacy no one can explain, Appleby meets and proposes to Judith Raven, the future Mrs. Appleby, while both are naked in a haystack, the wit and chuckles are genuine, the mystery good, and the end result a cross between an Ealing comedy and Agatha Christie.

   Granted your taste in eccentricity may get strained, but in his tenth outing Appleby and Innes are in fine fettle for the holiday celebrations. When he wanted to no one wrote a wittier mystery than Innes. The chuckles and chortles here are deep and real.


ELLERY QUEEN – The Finishing Stroke. Ellery Queen #24. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1958.

   From 1958, this late entry in the Queen saga is the American equivalent of the Great House mystery and incidentally a late recounting of Ellery’s first case.

   Granted it is a bit hard to reconcile this Ellery with the one of The Roman Hat Mystery much less Cat of Many Tails, but there is a rhyming killer whose poesy predicts murder to follow and a case that takes Ellery his entire career to successfully solve.

   Not the best of the Queen books, but nowhere near as much of a failure as some critics would have it.


  DAVID WALKER – Winter of Madness. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1964. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1964.

   It’s back to Ealing, with a bit of Monty Python thrown in, as Lord Duncatto hosts a Christmas guest list at his Scottish estates that includes his beautiful and easily charmed wife and daughter, an Oxford educated son of a Mafia don, Russian spies, a mad scientist, an android, and Tyger Clyde, the idiot second best man in the British Secret Service (007 is busy) who spends more time seducing Duncatto’s wife and daughter than actually helping as all comes to a head on Duncatto’s private ski slope with a roaringly funny shoot out.

   Walker is best know for his humorous novel Wee Geordie, about a naive Highlander come to London to compete in the Olympics, and Harry Black and the Tiger about the hunt for a man-eater in Post War India, both books made into films.


IAN FLEMING – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond #11. Jonathan Cape, UK, hardcover, 1963. New American Library, US, hardcover, 1963. Film: Eon, 1969.

   James Bond, 007, celebrates Christmas with a spectacular escape on skis from Ernst Stavro Blofield of SPECTRE’s Alpine HQ Piz Gloria and an encounter with Tracy, the daughter of Marc Ange Draco capo of the Union Corse, and soon to be future Mrs. Bond, foiling a plot to destroy British agriculture, and setting up a New Years Day raid to free Tracy and finally do away with Blofield and SPECTRE — almost.

   It’s one of the best of the Bond books, and ended up the only Bond film to introduce a genuine Christmas song (“Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown”).

   It isn’t Christmas until James Bond throws a SPECTRE henchman into a snow blower cleaning the train tracks.


   These are just a few examples of the genre celebrating Christmas in its own special way. Everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers has taken on a holiday mystery. Even the 1953 film of Mickey Spillane’s first Mike Hammer mystery I, The Jury has a Christmas setting, as does the Robert Montgomery Philip Marlowe film of Lady in the Lake.

   Maybe it’s because so many of us remember awaking to a special book on Christmas that we associate the genre we love with the holiday, maybe the canny Christmas release schedule of publishers, perhaps Mr. Dickens and his ghost story led us to wonder why there couldn’t be murder for the holidays if there were ghosts. Whatever the reason, the red in the holiday isn’t always from candy canes and Santa’s suit, and most of us are perfectly happy to associate a bit of mayhem with the eggnog and turkey.

   Hopefully this Christmas morning will find you unwrapping a happy murder or two under your tree.

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