It’s fun to read Christmassy crime in December and this seems the only time of year I get around to re-reading short stories. This year I’ve gone back to Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Man with the Sack and Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Both have the classic pre-war set-up where the detective is invited to stay at a country house – although the Christie was published in 1960.
The Case of the Man with the Sack was first published in 1937 in the December issue of The Strand magazine. It was included a year later in Mr Campion: Criminologist. It’s in print in the Arcturus anthology My Friend Mr Campion and other mysteries.
Albert Campion is implored to spend Christmas with his friends the Turret family at their East Anglian home, Pharaoh’s Court. Rising gaunt and bleak amid three hundred acres of ploughed clay and barren salting, all as flat as the estuary beyond. Good job it wasn’t Poirot, I can imagine how he’d shudder.
Lady Turret is ‘goat-touting’ over Christmas, that is entertaining a family of social climbers, masquerading as friends, in exchange for a fat fee. Allingham has lots of fun with the ghastly Welkins family. As expected in such tales, Mrs Welkins, a large middle-aged woman with drooping cheeks and stupid eyes, has brought with her an impressive diamond necklace.
I like this story a lot. It has festive atmosphere, humour, entertaining characters and an ingenious, satisfying plot.
The Turret family’s money-troubles are the ghost of Christmases to come for country house owners. By 1960 in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, society is changing.
In this story, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to spend a traditional English Christmas at Kings Lacey, a manor house, which is part fourteenth century. He is on the trail of a famous ruby, stolen from an indiscreet young native prince. Although Poirot displays his customary soft spot for young people and their follies, it is only the guarantee of oil-fired central heating that coaxes him away from London in winter.
The title gives much away to the armchair sleuth and I do wonder if Christie was having fun with a nod to Sherlock Holmes’s adventure of The Blue Carbuncle.
I won’t say much about either plot as these are short stories but their similarities are interesting to compare. Both authors have the McGuffin of a precious jewel/piece of jewellery, the rambling country home decked with seasonal trimmings, snow on the way, outsiders at the feast (as well as the detective) and young couples. In both tales the lady of the house is more aware of the situation and ‘managing’ her husband.
The notable difference between them is the time period. In Margery Allingham’s 1930s, Lady Turret may have temporary money-troubles from her heavy losses at bridge but the family still entertain their tenants’ children at their annual Christmas party.
By 1960 at Kings Lacey, society is changing. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is suffused with nostalgia – and this reads as though it comes from the author rather than the characters. Agatha Christie wrote an appealing foreward to this volume of short stories, where she recalled the superb Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall, near Stockport. Abney Hall was the family home of her brother-in-law and many years later, she wrote The Adventure while staying there.
Mrs Lacey says to Poirot. My husband, you know, absolutely lives in the past. He likes everything to be just as it was when he was a boy of twelve years old, and used to come here for his holidays.
And of herself: I simply long to have a small, modern bungalow. No, perhaps not a bungalow exactly, but a small, modern, easy to run house built somewhere in the park here, and live in it with an absolutely up-to-date kitchen and no long passages.
The granddaughter staying at Kings Lacey has got in with what they call the coffee-bar set. She lives in Chelsea and goes about without washing or combing her hair.
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is an enjoyable read with interesting social detail but I felt dissatisfied with meeting Poirot so briefly. I miss the length of a novel. Of the two, I prefer The Case of the Man with the Sack. Trying to work out why, I think because I admired the puzzle and liked the humour. It was easier to enjoy the short story for what it was, without missing a murder so much – much as I love Mr. Campion novels.
That’s the problem for me, a crime story without a murder just doesn’t satisfy in the same way. Understandably there’s a school of thought that Christmas tales should be lighter in tone and all end well but I like some darkness among the cheer. For me – in the pages of fiction only – there’s nothing like mulled wine, mince pies and murder…