You know what sometimes happens when you are really engrossed in a huge novel for a reviewalong, and you’ve missed the deadline but you’re racing through it with sufficient enthusiasm that you’re only going to be a couple of days late? Well, sometimes you lose your kindle and cannot find it anywhere, and it makes you grumpy enough that you can’t settle to read anything else for about a week. I was very much enjoying The Hunchback of Notre Dame – then one evening I walked in from my balcony (which is my favourite place to read in spring and summer), definitely holding my kindle, and the next day I could not find it anywhere. It can’t have left the flat, but seems to have vanished into thin air. Maybe I had very quiet, very specific burglars? Anyway, it is a total mystery. Even though I’ve disassembled several pieces of furniture trying to find it, I have had no joy. I’ll have to wait to finish Notre Dame until I can either locate my kindle or buy a new one, and it annoyed me enough that every book I picked up afterwards suffered from not being the one I actually wanted to read.

At last I decided to try PD James’ Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales collection of short stories. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, and it proved to be the thing to ease me out of my reading slump. (Was it a reading slump? Maybe “reading sulk” would be better). I love James but don’t read her regularly, because her work is absolutely pitch-dark, and this was no exception. The short stories in this collection are themed around revenge, and most of them are written in retrospect, often by many decades. For instance, The Yo-Yo is written from the perspective of a man who is nearing the end of his life – coming across a bright red yo-yo as he is putting his papers in order causes him to reflect on something that occurred when he was a boy at school. They are all bleak, and although the blurb insists that I will celebrate as the people killed get their comeuppance, I did not. (Maybe this is a reflection of the fact that I really do believe the old cliché that the best revenge is living well, rather than stabbing people in the throat). I enjoyed the stories, though, dark as they were!

It’s difficult to review short stories, especially crime, without giving away any crucial information. The stories are so, well, short, that to provide almost any plot information at all is to risk spoilers. Instead, I’ll pick out a couple and try to give a sense of the tone and atmosphere.

The Girl Who Loved Graveyards is probably the most effective story of the collection, though the one I personally enjoyed the least. This is because it edges closer towards horror territory than I am really comfortable with. Still, it’s done extremely well. From the very beginning (even the title), it’s clear that there is something uncanny and unsettling about the story, and that is sustained and developed throughout the story. It’s a close third person narration from the point-of-view of the eponymous graveyard-loving girl, and from the first page, almost from the first line, it’s clear that something is Horribly Wrong: “She couldn’t remember anything about that day in the hot August of 1956 when they took her to live with her Aunt Gladys and Uncle Gordon in the small house in East London, at 49 Alma Terrace. (…) She could remember nothing of her previous life”. A suitably spooky beginning, I think.

The Murder of Santa Claus was probably my favourite. One of the things James often does is incorporate the tropes of Golden Age crime fiction into her work while simultaneously analysing them, in a somewhat metafictional way. She was about a generation after most of the Golden Age authors – old enough that she was an adult during WWII, but not WWI – and you can tell that she intentionally responded to their work in hers. The Murder of Santa Claus is in this vein. The narrator, Charles Mickledore, is a relatively unsuccessful detective novelist, and he comments on the tropes of the story even as it goes along. Like the narrator of The Yo-Yo, he’s now an old man but is reflecting on something that happened in his boyhood, in the first year of WWII. He identifies how unlikely his tale is – that it is much more like a Golden Age story than anything else in the novel, with its clues and misdirects. (It does annoy me that James – both here and in other work that I’ve read – calls Christie “cosy”, which I think is a rather dismissive term when used across such a huge and varied body of work as hers). I love this particular device of James’, and I loved it here as much as I have in her other work.

There was a single dud – I wasn’t impressed with A Very Desirable Residence – but otherwise I think this is an outstanding collection. If you don’t read crime, or you don’t think you like it, I venture to suggest there might be something in here for you. If nothing else, it may snap you out of a reading slump/sulk, should you be in the market for something in that line!