by Sharon Tucker
But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round —as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
My university has a ten day to two week holiday between Christmas and New Year’s which gives us all a chance to unwind from the previous semester and ‘gird up our loins’ for the next. Although it is lovely to have time to relax, I find that I get a bit restless and anxious between the two holidays to get back to tasks I know are piling up—not to mention all the emails—and to hear about how we all spent the holidays. Everyone has at least one lurid anecdote to delight us all.
This catching-up also applies to the seasonal mysteries of authors I enjoy, as well as adding to my stock with new authors of whom there are many. So this year I enjoyed reading authors G. M. Malliet, Lee Harris, and Jane Langton who all have holiday mysteries that provided a welcome diversion from any personal dramas because there’s nothing like a murder to lend a proper sense of proportion to seasonal angst, yes?
Oddly, the Christmas season itself is rarely even mentioned in G.M. Malliet’s first cozy, Death of a Cozy Writer (2008), as the family of Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk gather Christmas week to witness the latest changes he’s made to his will. The family find it a bit surprising to discover who’s out of favor this year, who’s back in, and if there are new players on the field. Sir Adrian, never one for much family feeling, has always delighted in antagonizing his family members. He has taken it to new heights this Christmas in announcing he means to marry again, thus unsettling the heir apparent, Ruthven, as well as his three other adult children who are less than enthusiastic at the idea of sharing out their portions of Sir Adrian’s considerable wealth, each reacting to the news in his or her eccentric manner. So of course there’s a murder, and then another one just to muddle us even more. Having read and enjoyed Malliet’s Max Tudor cozies I was primed for something just a bit different since this predates Malliet’s Max Tudor mysteries. It’s a bit trying that readers must wait until 115 pages into the 286 total before her detective, DCI St. Just, appears and no hearts open here as Dickens would have it, more’s the pity.
Christine Bennett is not a detective (but she is married to one) nor is she a lawyer (although she investigates for one), but here in The Christmas Murder (1996), as with her other holiday mysteries, Lee Harris (Syrell Rogovin Leahy) has endowed Bennett with an orderly and disciplined mind as well as a true vocation to discover the truth others have lacked the time or the inclination to see. Bennet’s approach to the cases she accepts is one of simplicity, a technique she perfected during her years as a nun at St. Stephen’s Convent in New York State. So when a priest vanishes while on his way from New Mexico to visit his former parish, St. Stephen’s, Bennett’s former spiritual advisor Sr. Joseph asks for her help. As she begins by looking into the time Fr. McCormack was at St. Stephen’s, she learns that he had been blamed by the family for preventing the suicide of an unstable postulant during the years Bennett was on sabbatical earning a university degree. Fr. McCormack was completely cleared of any wrong-doing and had stayed on at St. Stephen’s until he retired, but Bennett can see no other evidence of why anyone should bear the elderly priest any ill will. As she begins her investigation, she meets with closed hearts, as well as minds, and must employ fairly radical tactics to find the truth.
Most of the many characters in Jane Langton’s eleventh Homer Kelly mystery, The Shortest Day: Murder at the Revel (1995), have a common cause: to make Harvard’s annual Christmas Revels as great a success as that of the previous years. However, when one of the major performers, folk singer Henry Shady, is run down by Morgan Bailey, the husband of Revels’ director Sarah Bailey, a tragic precedent is set for other unexplainable “accidents”. The many players involved who make the Revels a success every year are too occupied by the push to succeed and the frivolity of the season to take much note of the how and why of the mounting number of strange incidents. In an unusual twist, the reader (and Homer Kelley’s wife, Mary) has the goods on who is doing what to whom and why much sooner than former detective and current Transcendental scholar Homer Kelley. What interests readers is how Kelly, once he is involved, brings about a solution to the series of murders that are clouded by the many potential suspects both among the revelers and in the organized movement of the homeless camped in Harvard Yard. The reader will discover that we fellow passengers do have time to acknowledge each other in our journey, no matter where we are bound and Dickens was a bit off in his judgement of anyone’s being “below” anyone else.
December is a wonderful, if exhausting time of year. I have been buying Christmas presents since March, exercising caution with treats for the last month and found that I wanted to read about someone else’s Christmas dilemmas. It helped.
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