Christmas Stories: The Burglar and the BlizzardDecember 17, 2009
Last night I went to Project Gutenberg’s Christmas Bookshelf and downloaded six stories — seven, if you count Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Romance of a Christmas Card, which I’ve been wanting to reread since last Christmas. I read one story last night and one this morning, and honestly? They were kind of awful. I came to these stories expecting morals, and the significance of Christmas being blown out of proportion, but I was disappointed.
The Burglar and The Blizzard, by Alice Duer Miller, is the story of a young millionaire named Geoffrey Holland. He’s exactly the same as all young millionaires in stories from this era: tall, handsome, and well-built, but kind of apathetic. If he was aged ten years and switched with Geoffrey Ravenslee from Jeffrey Farnol’s The Definite Object, which I read last week, no one would know the difference.
Holland, his sister Mrs. May, and his millionaire friends all have country houses near a town called Hillsborough, and aside from Holland and Mrs. May, they’ve all been victims of a recent spate of burglaries. The burglar is notable for the fact that he takes only the most valuable objects in the house (at a house owned by a couple with bad taste, he finds nothing worth stealing). Mrs. May isn’t worried about her modest cottage being robbed, because the only things of value there are her silver tea set and her sable coat. Of course, by the end of the open chapter she’s received a telegram telling her that her house has been broken into and the coat and tea set are gone. You know: if the gun comes on in the first act, it goes off in the third, or whatever. Unfortunately, Miller forgets that rule after the first chapter.
Holland immediately sets off for Hillsborough to make sure Mrs. May’s house is all right, hoping to have a go at catching the burglar himself. A blizzard is starting when he arrives, and, while he manages to reach his house, there’s no way he’s going to be able to leave again. Predictably, the burglar is also there, stuck in the house. Even more predictably, he’s someone Holland knows: an old schoolmate, Billy McVay. Holland holds McVay at gunpoint and declares his intention of turning him over to the police as soon as the blizzard is over.
McVay is seriously irritating, both to Holland and to me. He apparently has no compunctions about burgling the houses of his former friends, brags about his skill as a burglar and at whatever other profession he tries, and finds the whole situation extremely amusing. It would sort of work, in a Raffles-y kind of way, except that McVay is utterly selfish and completely without charm.
After being held captive for several hours, McVay announces that his sister is in a hut in the woods, probably freezing to death. He asks Holland to go rescue her, which Holland eventually agrees to do, although not until he’s locked McVay in a closet. Before Holland leaves, McVay warns him that his sister has no idea that he’s a burglar; she apparently believes that he’s a night watchman, and that he shops at a secondhand store where he can get very nice things for almost nothing. My guess is that she’s not very bright, and nothing happens to convince me otherwise.
Holland, of course, falls in love with her at first sight, and can’t bring himself to tell her the truth about her brother. He takes her back to his house, and the three of them have a fairly awkward Christmas dinner out of cans. Cecilia sees that Holland isn’t fond of McVay, but she puts that down to the fact that her brother is kind of an asshole. Then there’s a weird bit where Miller switches her limited third person POV from Holland to Cecilia for just long enough to assure us that Cecilia has fallen in love at first sight, too. It’s kind of amateurish.
McVay is very pleased to observe that Holland and Cecilia have fallen in love, because he assumes that Holland won’t send him to prison now. Holland insists otherwise, but eventually McVay is proved right: Holland takes the first out that’s offered. It’s really disappointing, both in terms of narrative structure — the whole second half of the story seems to be centered around the possibility of Cecilia finding out what’s going on, but no one ever tells her — and because of the lack of appropriate punishment for McVay. I mean, seriously: he’s more irritating than Philo Vance. I really wanted him to go to jail. I also would have liked Cecilia to find out that her brother was a criminal and to be totally miserable about it, but it wouldn’t really have done any good, because McVay didn’t seem to care much about what she was feeling anyway.
Also, I hate that Miller doesn’t think she has to explain why Holland doesn’t turn McVay in. And that Christmas is an afterthought. You might want to take a look at the ebook just for the nifty illustrations (although the artist basically just does the same weird perspectival thing over and over again), but if you’re looking for a fun Christmas story…this is not it.