by Sharon Tucker
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Had a little trouble letting go of this past Christmas season? Me too. One of the ways I’ve eased myself on into this uncertain New Year is by reading C.C. Benison (aka Doug Whiteway), the Canadian author of Twelve Drummers Drumming (2011), Eleven Pipers Piping (2012) and Ten Lords A-Leaping (2013). They didn’t make my wish to hang on to the Christmas season come true, since none in the series so far have been set during Christmas, but Benison’s Fr. Tom Christmas is such a gentle, intelligent soul that I felt I would be safe with him newly settled in the small town of Thornford Regis in England’s West Country as he heals himself and his daughter by becoming a part of the life of the village. Ironic really since Fr. Tom finds the smaller scale of village life as dramatic as his former parish in Bristol could ever be and of course, there’s a murder.
Twelve Drummers Drumming begins with the first of many newsy letters Fr. Tom’s housekeeper, Madrun Prowse, writes to her mother in Wales. Be patient. These letters appear sporadically throughout the novels and furnish an alternate interpretation of events with endearing and often exasperating comic flourishes. (It reminds me of Shakespeare employing jesters, milkmaids, and servants to lend credibility to his world when the heavy doings of kings and ministers cry out for comic relief.)
Within a few pages readers learn why and how the newly widowed Fr. Tom finds himself relocated to Thornford Regis, Devon with his precocious nine-year old daughter Miranda and filling the mysteriously vacant post as vicar at St. Nicholas. The village fete Maye Faire is underway and most attendees are greatly anticipating a Japanese Taiko drum recital by twelve of the sons of the village rather than the customary skirling of their local pipe band this year. The unthinkable has happened when a corpse is discovered hidden in the largest of the Taiko drums. As Fr. Tom helps the village come to terms with death, he learns more about his fellow villagers, as well as the victim, but his conclusions about the murder are quite different from those of the police.
It doesn’t take the police long to show up in Eleven Pipers Piping when aficionados of Scottish poet Robert Burns celebrate his birthday on January 25 in Thornford Regis with a Burns Supper at the local hotel. These Burns Night celebrations are world-wide phenomenons, occasions which can be informal or very formal indeed but serving haggis is de rigueur. Fr. Tom would really rather not attend, since he finds the idea of sheep’s stomach stuffed with meat and barley and free-flowing whiskey an unpleasant prospect but since he is chaplain to the group of pipers he’s stuck. Soon the whole group finds themselves stuck as a heavy snowfall paralyzes the village depriving them not only of mobility but electricity as well. Shortly after an unexpected guest arrives, their host cannot be found until it is too late. He is dead. The ensuing scandal surrounding his death sets village gossip off and running as long buried secrets are disinterred and Fr. Tom is spoiled for choice regarding the motives too many of his parishioners are trying to hide.
We were left with the prospect of a skydiving event near Eggescombe Hall to raise funds for much needed church repair at St. Nicholas as Eleven Pipers Piping ended, so it’s no surprise to find that the anticipated day the jump is to take place is here as Ten Lords A-Leaping begins. The eponymous skydiving charitable organization whose members are famous for raising money for worthy causes are, however, not above fighting amongst themselves even in mid-air, so it should not surprise the reader that one of them is murdered shortly after landing.
To complicate matters, Fr. Tom suffered a debilitating injury to his ankle as a result of his participation in the jump, so he and daughter Miranda are obliged to accept the hospitality of the Allan—fforde-Beckett family at their estate, Eggescombe Hall rather than taking his planned birthday holiday to visit family in Gravesend thirty five miles from London. The mid-air combatants have turned out to be sons of the two houses of the Allans and fforde-Becketts who either live at or descend upon Eggescombe periodically to cause trouble, not the least of which is becoming a murder victim. From bad to worse, first Fr. Tom discovers the body, then he finds that sins abound at Eggescombe including art forgery, bigamy, and unseemly upstairs/downstairs behavior. The vicar is at his most vulnerable among these aristocrats who embroil him in their secrets to the extent that he finds he has something to hide as well as they all do. Can he find the murderer without exposing his own frailty? That is the question.
Benison unravels this and other plot complications in all the novels, but be aware that it helps to have read his three Jane Bee mysteries as well since she shows up prominently in Ten Lords A-Leaping. I hope you find it as beguiling as I did that clues to the mysteries in each book have a way of showing up again from time to time, giving the reader a cause for celebration when that ping of “got it!” happens as another bit of the puzzle falls into place. The stories abound with well-drawn characters and a lot of them so I’m most grateful that a cast list appears at the beginning of the books.
I hope you will be as forgiving as I was that the titles of the mysteries taken from The Twelve Days of Christmas carol are misleading. I also hope that Fr. Tom Christmas will join the beloved ranks of vicars such as Father Brown, Brother Cadfael, Rabbi Small, Sister Fidelma, and Sidney Chambers as surely for you as he has for me.
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