ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A PAIR OF SHORTS

If there’s one thing classic mystery fans know, it’s that everyone loves a good murder at Christmastime. Reading about rich Uncle Humphrey found under the tree with a stake of holly through his heart is a great way to relieve the stresses of hanging out with your real Uncle Randy who clasps you to his chest every holiday, smelling of bay rum and cigarettes, and loudly exclaiming, “Is that a pencil in your pocket, or are ya just glad to see me?” 

Of course, I too wanted to get into the Christmas spirit. I watched Netflix’s special edition of Murderville (a show I reviewed here) called Who Killed Santa? Will Arnett returns as homicide detective Terry Seattle, and the trick here is that he and the regular cast are given a script that contains a whodunnit, while the guest stars, who play trainee detectives under Terry, have no script and no clue as to what’s going on. They have to find clues by improvising as bodies are discovered and suspects interviewed. In the end, the guests attempt to solve the mystery, after which Terry reveals the true killer and shows the chain of clues/evidence that reveal the solution. 

I wouldn’t say Who Killed Santa? contains the strongest puzzle, but guest trainees Justin Bateman and Maya Rudolph are more than game to try and enter into the Murderville spirit and solve the case. (The same cannot be said for a surprise third trainee!) As usual with improv, the most fun comes from actors cracking up at their own cleverness; I just wish the mystery and the jokes were a little more clever.  

Turning to some Christmas reading . . . well, the week ahead of the holiday tends to get hectic, so I decided to skip a longer work and randomly selected two pieces of short crime fiction, opting for one author from each side of the Atlantic. And now, without further ado, let’s grab an egg nog (you Brits can add a slice of figgy pudding if you want) and take a look at Rex Stout’s “Christmas Party” and Carter Dickson’s “Blind Man’s Hood.”

CHRISTMAS PARTY

This Yuletide tale premiered in Collier’s Magazine in February, 1957; in fact, it was the cover story for the magazine’s final issue. It was then published with three other novellas in the 1958 collection And Four to Go. The Wolfe Pack’s website nerowolfe.org gave the story a C- and ranked it 27th out of 39. Bob Schneider, a blogger who posts at Speedy Mystery, concurs that this is a so-so story which shows a dip in Stout’s quality after a run of good novellas. Thus, you might want to add a wee more nip to your nog as we proceed.

It begins well, with a domestic dispute between boss and employee. Nero Wolfe wants Archie to drive him upstate “for an orchid powwow with the best hybridizer in England.” Archie reminds Wolfe that he has a date on Friday. Wolfe tells Archie to cancel the date. Archie tells Wolfe he has to go to his date’s office Christmas party and then he’s going to marry her and bring her to live in the masculine sanctuary that is 922 West 35th Street. He even waves the marriage license in Wolfe’s face as proof that the renowned Lily Rowan is no more and Margot Dickey is about to become Mrs. Archie Goodwin. 

It’s a sharp, funny scene as befits my favorite Watson narrator of all time, a tale of employee one-upmanship that leads our heroes down a chimney of misfortune. If only the case before them were as sharp, this would be one of Stout’s better novellas. He dabbled extensively in that form, writing more of them (between thirty-eight and forty-one) than the thirty-three novels). My first visit with the remarkable Nero Wolfe was the excellent “Black Orchids” (which, at close to 34,000 words, is Stout’s longest novella.) “Christmas Party” is nowhere near as clever. 

Archie, as you may imagine, is not marrying Margot Dickey. He had forged the license to do his current favorite dance partner a favor and make her boss jealous. Kurt Bottweill owns an interior design business, and Margot wants to marry him. At the office party, Kurt has provided food and drink for his employees; there’s even a masked Santa Claus pouring champagne from behind an eight-foot-long gold leaf bar. Archie is made welcome, not just as Margot’s date, but because he and Wolfe had recently recovered some stolen tapestries for the company. Still, things do not go smoothly, especially after Bottweill downs a shot from his private stash of Pernod and drops dead from cyanide poisoning. Equally intriguing is that the Santa bartender has vanished, leaving behind  his costume. Naturally, Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins are intent on finding this Kriminous Kringle in order to solve the crime!

We learn early on who was behind the Santa mask and where he resides. That the answer is a bit ludicrous doesn’t mean it’s not highly entertaining, and it does put Nero Wolfe into a terrible predicament, not only forcing him to take on the case but adding a ticking clock for pressure. And then one of the suspects shows up and pours gasoline on the flames, upping the stakes, both personal and professional, for Wolfe and Goodwin. 

I only wish that the case went somewhere interesting from here – but it doesn’t. And even though we are already halfway through the novella, Stout still manages to drag down the festive spirit. First, there’s really no investigation at all, which means the characters we’ve met don’t matter and there’s simply nothing to discover. Wolfe makes a pretty obvious guess from the few facts presented and lays a trap for the killer, which works like a charm and brings the proceedings to a muted end.  

To add insult to ennui, there’s a stuck-in-its-time element which, like a racist Energizer Bunny, keeps going and going and going. Only today, I had an interesting exchange with a most respected friend whose position is that we need to take into account the times in which these books were written. Point well taken, but everyone has their limits on this score. What I will say about “Christmas Party” is that it’s especially hard to read unpalatable remarks when they come from the minds and mouths of characters like Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, whom I admire very much. At the finale, Wolfe gets away with some outrageously illegal behavior by staring down the only witness who knows of his crimes and saying, “. . . in the end (the police) probably won’t believe you. They’ll think you invented it for some cunning and obscure purpose – as you say, you are an Oriental – and all you would get for it would be more questions.

Just for fun, I decided to watch the TV adaptation from the Maury Chaikin/Timothy Hutton TV series, which premiered July 1, 2001, mostly to see how they padded the plot and handled the touchy racist matter. It wasn’t much fun: the series is so stylized that it makes your teeth ache. I don’t know what sort of accent Hutton is attempting as Archie, and both Chaiken’s girth and manner are smaller than life. But the episode is extremely faithful to the novella, coopting much of Stout’s original dialogue and some of Archie’s best narrative bits. The racism is excised by cutting a certain character’s role down to a fraction of the original. 

It’s still third-rate Stout. I think the Wolfe Pack’s C- is more than fair. Merry Christmas.

*     *     *     *     *

BLIND MAN’S HOOD

Carter Dickson’s “Blind Man’s Hood” first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Sketch in 1937 and was collected in 1940’s The Department of Queer Complaints where it is the final story. If “Christmas Party” is like one of those animated TV specials you see every season (Nero Wolfe as Santa? as Frosty the Snowman? The mind boggles!), “Blind Man’s Hood” feels like a classic version of A Christmas Carol. Although, like “Christmas Party,” it has a contemporary setting – a young couple drives into the country to attend a holiday weekend at the home of some friends – this is John Dickson Carr we’re talking about, and the atmospherics are deliciously ghoulish right from the start:

Although one snowflake had already sifted past the lights, the great doors of the house stood open. It seemed less a snowflake than a shadow; for a bitter wind whipped after it, and the doors creaked. Inside, Rodney and Muriel Hunter could see a dingy, narrow hall paved in dull red tiles, with a Jacobean staircase at the rear. (At that time, of course, there was no dead woman lying inside.)”

The Hunters find blazing fires roaring on every hearth, a feast lying cold on the dining table, and nobody at home. Well, that is, until a young woman comes out of the library carrying the props for a game of Blind Man’s Bluff to greet them and explain the situation:

Rodney Hunter’s imagination has been devising all sorts of fantastic explanations: the first of them being that this demure young lady has murdered the members of the household, and was engaged in disposing of the bodies. What put this nonsensical notion into his head he could not tell, unless it was his own profession of detective-story writing. But he felt relieved to hear a commonplace explanation.

As you can imagine, (this being Carter Dickson), the explanation is far from commonplace. And Hunter’s occupation is the first piece of misdirection this story offers. He and Muriel are there to listen along with the reader as the girl tells a story of an impossible crime and its horrific aftermath. Nobody can combine the real world with the supernatural one more fairly and effectively than Carr, and he does it superbly in only twenty-five pages. Without giving too much away, the question at hand is how a young wife could be murdered (quite horribly, as she is both burned alive and has her throat cut) in a house with nobody else inside and all the doors and windows locked from the inside. I will reveal no more, except to say that there are footprints in the snow, which explains why my pal JJ loves this story so much!

The story ends as all classic Christmas stories should, with a good deed rendered and with children’s voices raised in songs of “glory and joy.” And like Ebenezer Scrooge before them, Ronald and Muriel Hunter have taken a ride through a dreamlike vision of Christmases past and have emerged, along with the reader, laden with the holiday spirit in their hearts.

God bless us everyone!

4 thoughts on “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A PAIR OF SHORTS

  1. I’m still not sure how I feel about Christmas crime – I did a binge for my current Golden Age series and there was a point where I exasperatedly turned to my husband and said something like, “why do all these people have to die ON Christmas, dressed AS Santa Claus?” To be fair it was quite a concentrated dose but it got me a bit down. Next year I might stick to lighter holiday mystery fare (or at least limit the volume of more traditional holiday mysteries…)

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