Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Mystery of Mrs. Bardell's Xmas Pudding

   I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for a mystery story set at Christmas. Be it Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Nero Wolfe in Christmas Party, or Ellery Queen in The Adventure of the Dauphin's Doll, I love em' all. So you can probably imagine, given my recent mania for all things Sexton Blake, how happy I was to discover an entire volume of Sexton Blake stories set at Christmas.
   Crime at Christmas features four Sexton Blake novellas by one of the best of the Blake writers, Gwyn Evans. Evans was known for his festive Christmas stories and readers of Union Jack and Detective Weekly came to expect them every Yule season. Evans was particularly fond of Blake's housekeeper, Mrs. Bardell, and he often placed her at the center of these Christmas mysteries, beginning with his very first one, The Mystery of Mrs. Bardell's Xmas Pudding, which I read last night.
   This story from the Union Jack Special Christmas number for 1925 is one of the most fun Christmas mysteries I've ever read. It's subtitled 'a Real Christmas story and a Real Detective story too!' and it is very much that. It starts off with American reporter 'Splash' Page and Inspector Coutts of Scotland Yard, who, finding themselves at loose ends for Christmas, are invited to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Sexton Blake's rooms in Baker Street. Evans takes the opportunity here to ladle on the Christmas trappings. Snow begins to fall and carolers are wandering the streets. All is warm and cozy by the fire in Baker Street as the three gentlemen and Blake's young assistant Tinker share good natured jibes while downstairs Mrs. Bardell bustles about in the kitchen.
  Things become more interesting when Mrs. Bardell comes into the consulting room and asks for Blake's advice. It seems that Mrs. Bardell's sister, Mrs. Cluppins, who runs a rooming house, has had her Christmas pudding stolen from her larder. Not only that, but for some reason, Mrs Cluppins' only boarder, a sailor known as 'Roarin Bill Barnes', is beside himself with anger over the theft.
   Mrs Bardell wants to take another pudding to her sister and Blake tells her to go ahead. However a little later Mrs. Bardell telephones from her sisters home to say that Roarin Bill has been murdered, stabbed in the back.
   Blake, Tinker, Coutts, and Page hurry over to investigate. (They take Blake's bloodhound Pedro too.) As it turns out, Barnes isn't quite dead, and Blake gets a cryptic clue from him before Barnes  lapses into unconsciousness. Barnes' reaction to the theft of the pudding takes on new significance and the team splits, with Tinker, Page, and Pedro going after the missing pudding and Blake and Coutts following other leads on the trail of the would be assassin.
   The rest of the narrative follows the heroes through various adventures as they encounter a gang of boy pirates, a shifty pub owner and other denizens of London's underworld. In the end Blake solves it all of course, and the whole cast sits down to a huge Christmas dinner. Like the man said, Christmas story and Detective story. Just a tremendous amount of fun.
   What's really cool about the book itself is that it's printed like bound issues of Union jack, complete with ads, features, back up stories and the like. A real time capsule of a bygone age. The other three stories in the book are:

The Crime of the Christmas Tree

The Affair of the Black Carol

Mrs. Bardell's Christmas Eve (I plan to read this one on Christmas Eve)

   I also have another Evans story, The Christmas Cavalier, in another collection. So plenty of Sexton Blake Christmas adventures ahead. I'll parcel them out through the Holiday season.

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