No room in these tales for a Little Drummer Boy.
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz
(Blue Rider Press, 283 pages, $23)
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
By P.D. James
(Alfred A. Knopf, 157 pages, $24)
Books about Christmas, or with Christmassy themes, can be saccharine. Consider a couple that aren’t. Some may argue that the Willie Nelson book Pretty Paper comes close to it in a couple of places. But we give America’s favorite troubadour a bit more latitude than others, do we not? And sentimental or no, the book has its strengths. Willie Nelson fans — you don’t have to go far to find these — will love it.
Moving from the king of on the road again to the queen of crime, Knopf gives us four previously uncollected short stories from the late P.D. James, who was always charming but never sentimental. Two have Christmas settings.
The novel is the best form for crime fiction. It needs a bit of length to accommodate the elements of good fiction along with the whodunit part. The required framework of a crime, a detective, and a solution means that most crime short stories are not much more than little puzzles. And even these from La James, the most skilled of crime writers, suffer a bit from this. But those familiar with James’s novels know she is so adept at setting, character, mood, theme, and elegant prose, that her stories, long or short, are more than genre fare. These qualities shine through even in the shorter form, and make these stories worth the reading time.
Let’s start with Willie. (Editorial note: As Willie is one of those one-name people, with your permission I will dispense with Nelson for the rest of this column.)
In Pretty Paper, Willie and co-writer David Ritz cobble together a novel of sorts based on Willie’s fine Christmas song of the same name from 1963. The song is based on a real experience when Willie was a down-and-out songwriter living in Fort Worth in the early Sixties, his great fame still years in the future and way less than certain. Around Christmas he saw a legless man in front of a department store selling Christmas wrapping paper and pencils to busy shoppers. Or at least trying to sell them, as most ignored him. In the book, Willie’s imagination gives this man a name and a moving story.
The story wasn’t easy to pry out of the very private street vendor, despite the politeness and charm of the Willie character’s enquiries. I’ll spare the plot details out of courtesy to those who choose to read the book. But it’s not revealing too much to say that the vendor turns out to have a music background, real tragedy in his past, and that a strenuous search and rehab assignment ensues.
The story is not without cliché, and a challenge to the willing suspension of disbelief here and there. But it has its strengths, not the least being to show what the country music business was like in the early sixties. We learn a bit about what Willie’s early career was like, not just writing songs but picking and singing in some honky-tonks that were as down-and-out as he was and featured some of the toughest audiences on the planet. In this time and place the aspiring artist had to deal with unscrupulous club owners, promoters, impresarios, and various thugs, gangsters, and assorted low-lifes who populated the scene and made it treacherous.
We’re treated to a fine profile of the Willie character’s drummer, who not only was attuned to Willie’s rhythm musically (no small thing as Willie is usually either a little ahead of or a little behind the beat), but thrived on collateral duties as Willie’s bodyguard and collector. When club owners tried to renege on what they had agreed to pay the band, this guy, who was always packing and was distinctly pre-Miranda in his approach, would visit them, often in the wee hours. After reasoning with the club owner, the agreed upon amount would materialize. Any resemblance between this guy and Willie’s real long-time drummer Paul English is, well, you’d better check with Paul on this. Even now, surely in his eighties, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you want to annoy.
The story takes 283 pages, but it moves quickly. I read it easily in an afternoon. This is because of Ritz’s smooth and insistent prose. He writes in the manner that Willie would talk if he were just sitting down with you and telling you the story (and what a treat that would be). He collaborated with Willie last year on It’s a Long Story, a memoir of Willie’s life, also in the Willie voice. Ritz has made a franchise of books in the voice of the central character. I’ve read and enjoyed his book on Ray Charles, but not the one on Don Rickles. (Does he call readers a bunch of hockey pucks?) Those interested in some of America’s more colorful and accomplished showmen will find his books, including this most recent one, worth the time.
Moving now from the loosey-goosey Willie to the more traditional, conservative, and reticent Phyllis Dorothy James, also known as Baroness James of Holland Park. Even though the short story doesn’t provide room for James at her best, those who’ve read and enjoyed her 19 elegant crime novels (including me) will want to read these stories. (Which is doubtless what the folks in the Knopf marketing department had in mind when they decided to collect these stories and put them between covers.) The stories come from the days when a Christmas story assignment from a newspaper or magazine provided James with a much-needed paycheck.
Short form or no, readers will find in these stories many of the elements that make her novels a feast for the acute reader – the apt turn of phrase, ingenious plotting, sly humor, pitch perfect settings, and plenty of atmosphere. Readers will even get a visit in one story, The Twelve Clues of Christmas, with a young Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh, who later becomes Commander Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, James’s detective in her later best-selling novels. Even early on, Dalgliesh’s competence and intelligence are evident, as he sorts the case that baffles the local inspector.
In the title story, the narrator is a 70-year-old mystery writer reminiscing about a real-life case she was involved in during a long-past Christmas season. In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Dalgliesh again is called on by a clergyman friend to determine if an inheritance he has come into from a woman who was acquitted at trial of the murder of her husband was in fact innocent, and therefore the inheritance untainted. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is a dark story, with the kind of surprise ending that often comes with crime short stories.
Like others of James’s fans, I was pleased to learn, with the news of this book, that more of her work was available. The only downside to this pleasurable trip is that it ends after only 152 smallish pages.