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Read an Excerpt
Tales of Yuletide Murder
By Charlotte MacLeod
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.Copyright © 1991 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
"Fa, la la la la, la la, la la."
Professor Peter Shandy of Balaclava Agricultural College found the carolers' injunction as superfluous as that inane string of meaningless syllables tacked on after it. Every house on the Crescent was already as bedizened as it could get, for Yuletide was rife and the annual Grand Illumination was not only heard all over campus and down in the village but could also be seen, smelled, touched, and even tasted, if you got close enough.
During most of the year, the open space encircled by eight faculty dwellings, including Peter's, was placid enough; merely a grassy sward kept in seemly order by the trusty men of Buildings & Grounds and appropriately bedded out here and there with flowers of spring, summer, or fall, depending. Came the holiday season, however, and the usually by then snow-covered Crescent erupted into a festive welter of illuminated Christmas trees and quaint gingerbread houses cut from plywood and assembled by the trusty screwdrivers of brawny students, who then donned oversized elf suits and flung themselves joyously into the time-honored Yankee pastime of turning an honest buck.
From some of the gingerbread houses, bonny lasses in frilly mobcaps and brave lads in stovepipe hats and home-grown chin whiskers purveyed artifacts ranging from apple-head dolls to woolens woven from fleece donated by the college sheep. Others hawked mulled cider, hot coffee, hot chocolate, and hot peppermint tea. Cold switchel had been tried one year but hadn't caught on. Homemade doughnuts kept warm in imitation stoneware Crockpots whose electric cords were cunningly hidden from the customers' view were a big item, though. So were hot dogs with festive garnishes of red-and-green piccalilli from the college kitchens.
Popcorn balls and taffy apples never failed to sell, as did more exotic comestibles. Foremost among these latter was a sort of antic sweetmeat made of shredded coconut, molasses, melted chocolate, and a number of other things that Professor Peter Shandy, the Crescent's least Yule-minded resident, preferred not to think about. Years ago, some coarse-minded wag had noticed the resemblance between these biggish, flattish, brownish, whiskerish confections and a certain bovine by-product familiar to every animal-husbandry student. Coconut cowpats he'd dubbed them, and coconut cowpats they'd remained. They sold even faster than hotcakes, and Peter Shandy thought them obscene.
But then, Peter thought most things about the Illumination obscene. For the first eighteen years of his residence on the Crescent, he'd been the self-appointed faculty Scrooge. Despite endless nagging by the Illumination Committee, he'd allowed not so much as a Styrofoam candy cane or a wreath of lollipops to sully the simple dignity of his small old rosy brick house. Then one year, goaded to fury by the Illumination chairperson's attempt to foist off on him a poinsettia fashioned from pieces of red detergent bottles, he'd gone hog-wild.
In a burst of uncontrollable fury, Peter had hired decorators to transform his premises into a veritable Walpurgisnacht scene of garish blinking light bulbs, life-size plastic reindeer, and hideous Santa Claus masks that lit up and leered. Then, fleeing the ire of his neighbors, he'd gone off on a cruise, got shipwrecked as he well deserved to be, and slunk home to find the Illumination chairperson's body stiff and stark behind his living-room sofa.
Oddly enough, Peter had emerged from this deplorable incident not only with a whole skin but with a wife. Under the benign influence of his delightful Helen, the renegade bachelor had been transformed into a relatively civilized husband. Even his next-door neighbor said so in her mellower moments, of which it must also be admitted she didn't have many. By now, Peter had gentled down to the point where he didn't even put up much of a squawk when Helen gently but firmly insisted on doing in Balaclava as the Balaclavans did.
Fortunately, Helen's instincts were for the tastefully simple as opposed to the more-is-better. There had been one unfortunate experiment with topiary trees made from fresh-cut boxwood that stunk the place up like a houseful of tomcats, but on the whole she'd done fine. This year, Helen's decorations were particularly charming.
Eschewing the excesses of her neighbors, she'd made low arrangements of evergreen twigs for all the front windows upstairs and down, and trimmed them with a few small rose-colored baubles and velvet bows to complement the aged brick walls. In the middle of each arrangement she'd set a real candle, protected by a glass hurricane-lamp chimney so that it could be lighted after dark without setting fire to the house. On the front door she'd hung a fat balsam wreath tied with a larger bow of the same rosy velvet. To the wreath was fastened an old brass cornet that Peter had tooted in his high school marching band, salvaged from the attic and shined up till it dazzled the eyeballs. Peter had pretended to scoff but been secretly tickled. He'd even taken pains to wire the cornet to the door, lest it be pinched by some souvenir hunter among the multitudes.
For multitudes there were. Balaclava's Grand Illumination had been going on ever since the bleak Depression years of the early 1930s. Photographed and written up in newspapers and magazines, talked about on the radio and even shown now and then on television, the event had become a New England tradition, attracting visitors from far and wide to this rural Massachusetts community.
Fairly far, anyway, and reasonably wide. Wide enough to keep Police Chief Fred Ottermole and his force, which consisted mostly of Officer Budge Dorkin, oftentimes hard-put to keep the traffic unsnarled. Fortunately the college had its own larger and better-equipped security force, so there was seldom any trouble about maintaining law and order.
The college, of course, was squarely behind the Illumination, and with good reason. Its student body was not rich; most of the kids were working their way, and here was a welcome source of tuition money. A fair number of students willingly forwent part or all of their Christmas holidays for the greater good of hustling the tourists. Peter could admire their self-sacrifice and respect their motives; he just didn't see why in Sam Hill they couldn't maintain their blasted tradition someplace else.
Out beyond the pigpens, for instance. At this very moment, a disgusting youth in a just-purchased Viking helmet with plush moose horns on it was unwrapping a coconut cowpat and throwing the paper on the trodden snow. Peter was glaring balefully down at him through the upstairs front window and wishing it were the second week of January when he heard a thump at the door.
Some keen-eyed visitor must have managed to sort out the knocker from the balsam, or else a miscreant tourist was trying to swipe his cornet. Normally Peter would have flung open the window and stuck out his head to settle the matter with a lusty bellow, but he was loath to disarrange Helen's artistically disposed greenery and even loather to smash the hurricane lamp. There was no use even trying to bellow, he'd never be able to make himself heard over the general hullabaloo. He bowed to the inevitable and went downstairs. It might be his old friend and neighbor Professor Ames, at loose ends between semesters, looking for a game of cribbage.
No, by George, it was about the third from the last person he'd have expected. Moira Haskins, the college comptroller, was a pleasant woman and a neighbor on the Crescent, but not one with whom he and Helen were on dropping-in terms. Peter had an ominous foreboding that Moira was after something.
As so often happened, Peter was right. When he indicated a readiness to divest her of her storm coat and call Helen down from the den where she was wrapping presents, the comptroller shook her head.
"Thanks, Peter, but I can't stay. I just wanted to show you this and see what you make of it."
Moira's "this" was a twenty-dollar bill. It looked to Peter like all the other twenty-dollar bills he'd been shelling out with unaccustomed abandon during this expensive season, until he put on his reading glasses and studied it closely. Then he began to chuckle. Where he'd have expected the grim and lowering portrait of President Andrew Jackson, he saw instead the even grimmer and far more lowering visage of President Thorkjeld Svenson.
"My God! Where the flaming perdition did this come from?"
"One of the gingerbread houses, I assume. It was in with the rest when Silvester Lomax brought me last night's cash pickup. I was sitting at my desk just now, counting the money for this morning's deposit, when I did a double take and almost freaked out. What do you think, Peter? You don't suppose somebody got to doodling around on the bill with a drawing pen or something and —"
"Not on your life. Jackson's head is long and skinny. It might have been managed with Ulysses S. Grant, I suppose, if they could have got the beard off. Just a second, I think I've —" He fished in his wallet and pulled out a fifty, marveling that he did in fact still have one. "See, Grant had a heavy, squarish face like the president's. Rather as if he'd been hacked out of Mount Rushmore."
"Yes, I see," said Moira. "Then why didn't they use a fifty instead of a twenty?"
"Probably because fifties are less common and therefore more apt to be given close scrutiny. Is this the only such bill you've found?"
"So far. The only one that's been caught, anyway. We're into the fifth day of the Illumination, you know, and we've taken in an awful lot of money. There's no telling how many may have slipped through."
"Not all that many, I shouldn't think. This is a remarkably good likeness."
"Frighteningly good." Moira shuddered slightly despite the storm coat she hadn't taken off. "But President Svenson's so much more presidential than most presidents. If those kids in the booths did happen to notice, they'd take it for granted he belonged there. Most of them have probably never heard of Andrew Jackson anyway. I wonder what Dr. Svenson's going to think of this."
"He'll think it's funny, provided we don't get stuck with a whole flock of them. As for this one —" Peter kept hold of the startling counterfeit and handed Moira a genuine twenty taken from his wallet. "Fair swap?"
"No, really, Peter. Why should you stand the loss?"
"What loss? This bill's a collector's item, it's worth far more than the alleged face value. I'm probably gypping the college worse than the counterfeiter did. Drat it, Moira, this is a fantastically expert job. Look at the workmanship. Can you tell me why anybody with the talent to pull off such a magnificent fake would waste his time on a practical joke that could send him to jail?"
"Well, no, I hadn't thought of that. It doesn't make sense, does it?"
"It might, I suppose, though I can't think how. Look, Moira, let's keep this between ourselves for the time being. There could be something more than meets the eye here. I'd like to check around a bit before we spread the word. Let me know if you get any others, will you?"
"All right, Peter. I certainly don't want to involve the college in anything shady, especially at Illumination time. You know how stories get blown up and stretched out of proportion. You're quite sure I shouldn't go to the president?"
"You can't right now, he's gone off skiing. I tell you what, Moira: I'll have the security guards pass on to the students a general warning about being on the alert for funny money. A big event like this, run by young amateurs, creates an ideal situation for the passing of counterfeit bills. I'm surprised the Illumination's never been hit sooner, now that I think of it. Anyway, we'll cope. Thank you for coming, Moira."
"Thank you for listening, Peter. I'm sorry to be dumping on you, but then everybody does, don't they?"
That was true enough. Peter had been Balaclava's unofficial private detective ever since that great debacle at the earlier Illumination, when President Svenson had confronted him with the dire consequences of his ill-judged prank and saddled him with the job of catching the murderer.
Peter knew he'd get stuck again anyhow, so he might as well get to work right away, not that he had the remotest idea where to start. He let the comptroller out and went back upstairs with the aberrant twenty-dollar bill in his hand.
"Helen, what do you make of this?"
"Of what?" his wife replied somewhat testily. "Stick your finger on this knot, will you? I don't see why it's always the woman who gets landed with wrapping the parcels. I'll bet Margaret Thatcher doesn't wrap presents."
"Couldn't you have had them gift-wrapped at the stores?"
"Of course not. You have to stand in line till your feet kill you, then they charge you an extra dollar for a piece of fancy paper and a stupid little bow. You can take your finger out now."
"No, I can't, you've lashed it down."
"Oh, Peter!" Sighing, Helen freed the captive digit and yanked tight the knot. "All right, now what am I supposed to look at?"
Peter handed her the note. She stared blankly for about a quarter of a second, then burst out laughing.
"Where in heaven's name did you get that?"
"From Moira Haskins. She was here just now."
"Why didn't you call me?"
"I offered to, but she said she couldn't stay."
"Then why did she come? It's not like Moira to be showing silly jokes around."
"She wasn't joking. This thing turned up in last night's Illumination takings."
"Are you saying somebody actually succeeded in passing Thorkjeld's picture off as legal tender?"
"That appears to have been the case. Unless some student worker stuck it in as a joke. Which, I must say, seems a bit subtle for purveyors of coconut cowpats."
"I see what you mean." Helen picked up the magnifying glass she used for studying ancient documents from the college's historic Buggins Collection, of which she was curator. "You know, Peter, this likeness to Thorkjeld is quite a piece of work. I think it's actually a pen-and-ink drawing, but it reproduces the steel-engraving technique so expertly that I can't tell for sure. As a guess I'd say the artist, and I'm not using the word loosely, may have photocopied a real twenty, cut out the medallion on the front, inserted his drawing of Thorkjeld Svenson in place of Andrew Jackson, and run it off again. You could do that easily enough if you had access to a copier that does color work."
"Having made his own paper?"
"I expect this is simply a very-good quality rag-content bond that's been dipped in tea or something and wrinkled up to make it look more authentic. It doesn't have quite the feel of real currency, but I can see where an inexperienced student clerk with cold hands and fourteen more customers clamoring to be served might not notice, especially at night with all those colored lights around. It would have been simply a matter of picking the right time and place. But why Thorkjeld?"
"Moira suggested it could be because the students would assume he belonged there."
"She's probably right. How many of these have been turned in?"
"Just this one so far, that Moira knows of. She's going to let me know if she gets any more. I'm wondering whether I ought to take this along to the state police, in case the bills are being passed elsewhere."
Helen shook her head. "That seems hardly likely, don't you think? To me, this looks more like somebody having a quiet little snicker at the college's expense."
"It also looks like one hell of a lot of work for a secret snicker," Peter replied, "but I have to admit that's how it strikes me, too. Can you think of anybody on the faculty who knows how to draw and goes in for being inscrutable?"
"Dr. Porble enjoys a private joke" — Porble was the college librarian and Helen's alleged boss — "but he can't draw for beans. He can't even doodle. He simply writes down the Dewey Decimal Code for whatever he happens to be thinking about but isn't going to tell you; then he smiles that sneaky little smile of his and scratches it out."
"You don't happen by any chance to have a pen-and-ink portrait of the president in the library files that Porble might have used?"
"We have a few mildly scurrilous caricatures, but nothing that could even remotely pass for a steel engraving. You know what, Peter? I'll bet you a nickel this was copied from the photograph on that program the art department got up to celebrate Thorkjeld's twenty-fifth anniversary as president of the college."
"The one Shirley Wrenne took, that makes him look like Zeus hunting for a likely target to hurl his thunderbolt at? By George, Helen, I think you're right. What happened to that program? We had a copy of it around here somewhere, didn't we?"
"Yes, but I took ours over to the library. The one we had in the files disappeared."
"How long ago?"
"I couldn't say. That particular file doesn't get much attention as a rule. If the program had been a bunch of hog statistics, Dr. Porble would have been on it like a hawk. Want me to go over and get our copy back?"
Excerpted from Christmas Stalkings by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1991 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCharlotte MacLeod: Counterfeit Christmas,
Reginald Hill: The Running of the Deer,
Elizabeth Peters: Liz Peters, PI,
Medora Sale: Angels,
John Malcolm: The Only True Unraveller,
Dorothy Cannell: The January Sale Stowaway,
Bill Crider: The Santa Claus Caper,
Patricia Moyes: Family Christmas,
Evelyn E. Smith: Miss Melville Rejoices,
Eric Wright: Two in the Bush,
Mickey Friedman: The Fabulous Nick,
Robert Barnard: A Political Necessity,
Margaret Maron: Fruitcake, Mercy, and Black-Eyed Peas,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A mystery short-story anthology. Some of the stories were better than others, but thank goodness, they were all readable mystery stories--not those weird navel-gazing symbolic ones you can only really get into if you're a drunk, high, sleep-deprived college student (er... not that I'd know anything about that). I bought the book for the Evelyn E. Smith story about Mrs. Melville. Her middle-aged female assassin was such fun. I'd so woed that she only wrote 4 books and the short story in this anthology about her.
A compilation of short mystery stories with a theme of Christmas, compiled by Charlotte MacLeod.I had never read most of the authors in this book, and I'll be honest, with the exception of one, I doubt I'll ever read any of them again. The stories were O.K. They didn't thrill, mystify or enchant. My favorite in the book, which I intend to look for more of, was Margaret Maron.
All 13 stories are original to this anthology. Seven of them are about mystery series characters, so if you love that series, you'll want this book. My favorite story is "Counterfeit Christmas," in which Peter Shandy is confronted by another mystery at Balaclava Agricultural College's Grand Illumination. It's a sweet tale and I'm glad that Peter & Helen's cat, Jane Austen, has a good role in it. I rate that one five stars. It's three stars for the Joe Sixsmith story, "The Running of the Deer" by Reginald Hill. I like Joe and his cat, Whitey. I liked the author's descriptions, such as Joe thinking that Skellbreak Hall looked like a Hammer Films sort of place. It just doesn't make me want to check our local library's online catalog to see if they have more of Joe's adventures. That's pretty much the way I feel about the other series stories, except for Ellie Haskell, which I've been collecting for years, and the Deborah Knott, which sounds interesting. The other five-star story for me is "Liz Peters, PI" by Elizabeth Peters. I laughed aloud at this parody of "mean streets" mysteries, especially at the way Liz' six cats protected her from her nemesis. (Invoking "Saint Kinsey" as the patron saint of private eyes was another good one.) The John Sanders & Harriet Jeffries story, "Angels" by Medora Sale was more fun when two teachers in charge of their school's annual Christmas festival of carols were having to cope with potential disaster than when the police were having to investigate a murder, although there were still some touches that made me smile in the latter part. "The Only True Unraveller" by John Malcolm interested me with the biographical tidbits about Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan and his beloved Fanny Ronalds. I wish I could have seen a photo of her in her illuminated harp-shaped crown. At least her Wikipedia entry has a photo of the very gravestone mentioned in the story. Fans of unnerving cemetary chases should enjoy this one. Ellie Haskell was probably still Ellie Simons in "The January Sale Stowaway" by Dorothy Cannell since there's no mention of Ben. Ellie's Cousin Hilda is telling her about the one dark secret of her life. Although this story was written years before impatient bargain hunters trampled a Long Island Walmart employee to death on Black Friday in 2008 and a woman used pepper spray on 20 other Black Friday shoppers in 2011; Hilda's description of the January sale behavior at Bossom's Departmental Store is bad enough. I can hardly blame her for the means she took to try to avoid the crowd. As one might expect in a Dorothy Cannell mystery, things do not turn out as Hilda planned, but an amusing time is had. The Professor Carl Burns story, "The Santa Claus Caper," by Bill Crider, is also amusing -- in a wince while you chuckle way. (Mr. Crider was kind enough to confirm that his Pecan City is fictional and in no way related to the real-life Pecan City, Texas that was apparently defunct by 1936.) "Family Christmas" by Patricia Moyes is a cautionary tale. It was written well enough, but it left me a little sad. Evelyn E. Smith's "Miss Melville Rejoices" did not satisfy because I wouldn't have minded two deaths for the price of one story. I can't fault Miss Melville's planning, though. "Two in the Bush" by Eric Wright boasts no actual murder, but the planning and carrying out of the caper was fun. "The Fabulous Nick" by Mickey Friedman is a nice story and the only one in the book to feature Santa Claus himself. Nick makes a pretty good amateur sleuth. "A Political Neccessity" by Robert Barnard is not a nice story at all, but the end helps. Margaret Maron's "Fruitcake, Mercy, and Black-Eyed Peas'" is the Deborah Knott story, written before the first Knott novel came out. It's both sad and heart-warming. Ms. Maron has kindly explained that although Deborah Knott's first appearance in print was "Deborah's Judgment" in A Woman's Eye, edited by Sarah Pare
Good but not great. Several short mysteries by varioius authors. Some better than others. A few typos.
This was another fun book filled with Christmas cozy mysteries. My favorite was Liz Peters, PI, it made me laugh from the first line of the story. This makes for fast reading during the busy holiday season. I am happy to recommend this book to other cozy mystery fans. I voluntarily read an ARC of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley.