Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Murder for Christmas, Part One

Inspired by holiday releases by two of my favorite mystery writers, I decided to sample several (okay, a LOT) of Christmas-themed mysteries. I'm breaking my "always read a series in order" rule for this purpose, figuring that a holiday entry might be a fun way to try out a new series. I found what may be the most extensive possible list of Christmas mysteries right here, though it's a bit outdated. It still has more mysteries than anyone can read between Thanksgiving and Christmas!

Six Geese A-Slaying by Donna Andrews: This is entry #10 in the Meg Langslow series, a series I've read from the beginning. Meg is in charge of the Caerphilly Christmas parade that includes camels, her mother hilariously in charge of the Dickens float, the meanest Santa Claus ever, an excess of SPOOR (Stop Poisoning Our Owls and Raptors) members shedding feathers in their goose costumes, and a snarky photographer sent from a big-time newspaper. When the mean Santa meets his end, Meg investigates along with Chief Burke. I figured out whodunit, but not why, which made the mystery plot interesting. I always enjoy a Meg Langslow mystery, and this was no exception, with the added element of a crazy Caerphilly Christmas!

Santa Clawed by Rita Mae Brown: I am a die-hard fan of Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker (and their person, Harry), but even I have had some less than enthusiastic reactions to a few of the more recent mysteries. Brown tends to incorporate her opinions on everything under the sun in her books, which sometimes bogs down the narrative enough to lessen the fun, so I was delighted to see her back in fine form in this, the 17th entry, and a holiday treat, no less! The Brothers of Love, a monastic order in Crozet, run a Christmas tree farm to raise funds for their work with the dying. This year, one of the brothers is found at the farm, throat slit, and a strange coin under his tongue. The brothers each have a shady past, and the plot is complicated by a homophobic doctor and a paranoid wife. Christmas in Crozet is a delight, and the mystery is satisfyingly complex. Harry & Co. are in fine form, and the animals are a delight (did I say delight already? a couple of times? well, that's how delightful the book was). I really enjoyed the musings at the beginning on whether or not a leopard can change its spots, as well as Brown's explanations of Southern courtesies.

Sugarplum Dead by Carolyn Hart: This is #12 in the Death on Demand series (named for the mystery bookshop owned by the main character, Annie Darling), and my theory about publishers getting lax on the editing late in the series holds true here. I read the first book in the series at some point, but it didn't make much of an impression, I guess, because I didn't pick up any others. I actually thought the plot here (at least the main mystery plot) was well-done, a satisfying mystery with some twists and turns, but the characters and subplots were a problem for me. Annie's father turns up after 20 years out of her life (with a lame explanation for his absence), and she and her husband seem strangely cold and unaffected by what should be a major emotional upheaval. She rejects him at first, then sort of accepts him for no real reason. This bogged down the plot quite a bit, as did a subplot about Max's mother. Perhaps dedicated readers would be excited about her role, though--I'm not sure. Annie's father is in town to help his siblings and their spouses persuade an aging former Hollywood star to keep her money in the family instead of giving it to a charlatan who claims to communicate with the dead. There are a lot of characters, and it seemed Hart was afraid we might forget one, because she had several instances of listing what every single member says or does, one after the other, in tedious fashion. The mystery plot was intriguing, but I found myself skimming quite a bit to get to the interesting parts. And Annie and Max left me kind of cold. I didn't feel very invested in either of them. I got that Max was rich, and that Annie has read every mystery under the sun, but I really didn't get to know them. I was told some of their character traits, but I didn't feel much was shown. I liked Broward's Rock, the bookstore, and the mystery, but the main characters don't really scream "Buy the rest of the series so you can spend a few hours with me!" Also, as a holiday mystery, there wasn't much Christmas there. Annie and Max talk about presents for each other, and Annie decorates the shop, but it didn't feel much like a Christmas mystery. I may try the first in the series again to see if I like it.

Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder by Robert Lee Hall: I was predisposed to like this book. In elementary school, I used to check out the Benjamin Franklin biography from the school library, and I read Ben and Me I don't know how many times. But in the first five pages, the long sentences, long paragraphs, and historical diction were driving me to distraction. Within just a few more pages, though, I'd gotten used to the style, and I was completely sucked in. This book balances mystery and historical atmosphere brilliantly, bringing Franklin to life through the narration of his young assistant, Nick Handy. When merchant Roddy Fairbrass is murdered very publicly, during a mummer's play at his home, his wife is reluctant to answer Ben's questions, his son is evasive, and there are numerous threads including a local gaming hell, a criminal mastermind, a brother in Jamaica, and a ghost spotted in the Fairbrass home by Roddy's daughter. All this is wound together in a tight narrative at turns charming and suspenseful. The Christmas element is strong and gives an interesting look at Christmas celebrations in London circa 1757. I will definitely be picking up the first in the series (the Christmas one is #2), Benjamin Franklin Takes the Case.

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