This weekend's story from The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, "The Chinese Apple" by Joseph Shearing totally fulfills its promise! It had me completely engaged from the first paragraph on and elicited an appreciative guffaw at the end. Yes, I liked this one very much. Joseph Shearing is a new to me author, though like last week's story, the author was well known and read in his day. Rather her day, since Joseph Shearing is one of several pen names of Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long. Apparently she mostly wrote historical novels (based on real-life crime cases) under the name of Shearing. One of her stories of psychological suspense was made into a movie in 1947. "The Chinese Apple" was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1949.
"Isabelle Crosland felt very depressed when the boat train drew into the vast London station. The gas lamps set at intervals down the platform did little more than reveal filth, fog, and figured huddled in wraps and shawls. It was a mistake to arrive on Christmas Eve, a matter of missed trains, of indecision and reluctance about the entire journey. The truth was she had not wanted to come to London at all."
Isabelle Crosland is not a very likable woman to be honest. She's a snob and not a very happy one. She had an unhappy childhood and couldn't wait to get out of her parent's house as soon as she could, which was not soon enough. Her 'savior' came in the form of a dull, retired, half-pay officer who was unsuited for her but had the foresight to die of malaria early on in their marriage leaving her comfortably off, living in Italy with a musically-inclined lifestyle.
All-in-all she ended up with a reasonably good life filled with friends and admirers in Florence, so it is with a sense of resentment that she returns home to London when her widowed sister dies leaving a daughter behind. Isabelle feels a sense of responsibility to go and bring the young woman back with her. But it is a dreary London evening she comes home to, to the house that caused her so much unhappiness when she was a young girl. A home which she refers to as hateful. She feels as though she has been "lured back by some malign power". So that sets the tone.
Isabelle arrives in Roscoe Square, to that hateful home where she grew up and now regrets having made arrangements to meet her niece there. She'll take her back to Florence as soon as she can and put it all well behind her for good. But nothing is quite right, or up to standards, from the moment Isabelle arrives. It begins with a crowd in the square, standing before a house just opposite. Perhaps carolers on this Christmas Eve making cheer, though they seem awfully subdued. And then her niece isn't at the door to greet Isabelle and she begins wishing she had never left Florence. When she does finally meet the girl, she is nothing like she expected and she hopes that perhaps she can leave her here in London and can return home alone--niece or not.
And then a detective shows up on her doorstep asking questions about the neighbor across the way. The elderly woman has been brutally murdered and the police are now looking for the woman who had been her helper and companion.
This is a story that is nicely plotted and controlled in the telling conplete with a few red herrings. Just what is at work here? Is there something strange about the house. Her curmudgeonly feelings surely are being magnified by the house, which as a young girl made her feel as though she had no existence. But Shearing brings it all together in a way I had not expected.
Another good find. I might have to look for that novel of suspense, So Evil My love, too.
Can you believe there is just one more weekend left in the year? Unbelievably I have not thought yet in which direction I want to take my short story reading next year. Something to think about between now and then, though I will certainly be dipping into this collection again this coming week and see what new surprises I find.
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This weekend's New Yorker story (actually the November 24 issue--I will catch up by the end of the year . . .), "Eykelboom" by Brad Watson is about a boy growing up in a dysfunctional and conservative family who goes missing. He's a boy who doesn't quite fit in with either friends or family. His father is strict to the point of belting the boy at any infraction and his 'friends' are only too helpful at getting him into awkward and unhappy situations. A dark vision of boyhood. You can read the author's Q&A here.
I'll definitely be continuing with my New Yorker reading in the coming year and hope to get into a variety of new collections, too. I am, as you know, always on the look out for good short stories. Maybe alongside the new from the New Yorker, I'll see what I can come up with the tried and true classics, too. Hmm. May have to compile a list (need at least 52 . . .). Do you have a favorite ('classic') short story?