Happy Christmas everyone! I’ve picked 2 undemanding festive reads this week, as I for one am already finding my brain overtaxed – I blame all the twinkling lights.
To start, the irresistably titled Christmas With Dull People by Edwardian satirist Saki (republished this year by Daunt Books). This is a perfect stocking filler: 4 stories amounting to 48 pages, little bite-sized witticisms for when your brain is dribbling out of your ears trying to comprehend the inanities of Christmas telly as your stomach tries to digest a week’s worth of calories in one sitting.
The stories are so short I just want to give you a wee taster of what to expect, I can’t really say more or it will amount to paraphrasing the whole thing. Saki is wonderfully witty and contained but it does make the stories hard to review!
In the first story ‘Reginald’s Christmas Revel’ the titular man is trying to get through Christmas games with his relations.
“On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English Fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect.”
In the following story ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ he treats us to his opinions on the difficulty of festive gift-receiving:
“Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really long enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.”
We leave Reginald for ‘Bertie’s Christmas Eve’ in which Bertie, who “had in early life adopted the profession of n’er do well” treats his whole family appallingly in a farcical fashion.
Finally in ‘Down Pens’ a couple struggle with the thank you letter writing that inevitably follows the revelries:
“I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters today and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness”
I hope this has given you enough of an idea of Saki’s wit and humour to convince you. A real treat, and calorie-free to boot!
Creepy snowmen break:
Secondly, Arrest the Bishop? By Winifred Peck (1949) which I picked up after reading Ali’s review. This is a lovely golden age mystery set in 1920, at Christmas time, although the festivities are not lingered over.
Dr Broome, the Bishop of Evelake, has various people arriving at his Palace where he lives with his second wife, their staff (minus Moira the housekeeper who is in hospital) and Bobs, his secretary. Joining them are Judith, his flighty, adulterous daughter from his first marriage; Sue, his sensible daughter from his second; Dick, ex-military police and now a deacon; a Chancellor; a canon; and a group of young clerics. It is snowing heavily as you’d expect in a country house murder mystery, when the despicable Reverend Ulder arrives:
“when he focussed those eyes on you, with the secretive state of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats… the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots”
This charmer is corrupt in just about every way you can imagine and having added blackmail to his repertoire, there is no shortage of suspects when he is poisoned. Dick helps out Chief Constable Mack with the investigation, but everyone seems so unlikely a murderer:
“Motive and opportunity alike seemed to point skeleton fingers at such preposterous figures – Judith – the Chancellor – Canon Wye – the Bishop himself!”
“Dick…was aware by now that his activities in the war would always seem to outsiders that of a sort of glorified policeman. Nor could he very well explain that til this day he had no experience whatever of suspecting Church dignitaries of murder.”
Mack seems determined to arrest the Bishop, while for Dick, the chief suspect is obsequious butler Soames:
“Had this chap been reading Wodehouse as a guide to butlers? For occasionally he would throw out such Jeeves-like sentiments with oily rectitude, in startling contrast to his usual sulky, aggressive manner.”
Despite their biases and their motley crew of suspects, of course they get there in the end. To be honest, the murderer is completely obvious, but this was part of the fun. I could just watch the investigation play out and enjoy this good-natured golden age mystery as a perfect comfort read for this time of year.
I contributed greatly to our team win at my work’s Christmas quiz this year, due to my specialist subject coming up: questionable late-20th century Christmas tunes. The clincher was knowing that this wasn’t Elvis Presley (trigger warning – creepy puppet):