by Robert C. Hahn
Christmas mysteries, or simply holiday mysteries, are a staple of crime fiction embraced by many of the genre’s most famous authors, and collections of holiday-themed short stories are common as well. Soho Crime has taken a rather novel, er, unusual, approach by having their stable of authors contribute Christmas-themed stories collected in The Usual Santas (Soho, $19.95).
The result is excellent, beginning with the foreword by Peter Lovesey, who notes that “every crime series character of note has been involved in a festive mystery.” The anthology gives readers a chance to sample the writings of eighteen Soho authors and provides first-class entertainment in the process.
Swedish author Helene Tursten’s “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime” is a clever and delightful tale of an elderly woman, Maud, who has met life’s many challenges with fortitude, wit and ingenuity—even now, when she needs a walker to get around, she easily handles a rude counterboy and ponders a more serious “Problem.” That problem is an abusive neighbor who beats and belittles his long-suffering wife, and Maud wrestles with the best way to correct his behavior.
Mick Herron keeps the ball moving with “The Usual Santas,” perhaps the funniest story in the collection. Here an anonymous, costumed group of eight Santas who share duties at the massive Whiteoaks shopping center gather to celebrate the approaching end of their seasonal employment. It is a festive and well-lubricated occasion, until the men discover that their number has grown to nine. The interloper’s appearance transforms the evening completely as the group tries to discern which of them is the false, false Santa.
Those two stories alone make this a collection worth having, but there is much more. Martin Limón takes readers to Korea in “PX Christmas.” It’s a freezing winter in the seventies, and his series characters MP investigators Ernie Bascom and George Sueño bust the Korean wife of an American G.I. for black market activites, then rescue her from the unexpected fallout.
Christmas is celebrated in many other locations. Timothy Hallinan’s poignant “Chalee’s Nativity” takes readers to Bangkok, where the poverty affects the pocketbook more than the spirit. And Colin Cotterill visits the same city in the chilling “There’s Only One Father Christmas, Right?” where a thief’s daring robbery comes to an abrupt conclusion. A Cuban private investigator, who is also a Santeria priest, stars in Teresa Dovalpage’s “The Cuban Marquise’s Jewels.”
Danish authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis deliver “When the Time Came” about another special birth at Christmas as their series character nurse Nina Borg answers a plea for help assisting not only in a birth but also to aid strangers in a strange land.
Time and place play a major part in the stories of Sujata Massey and Gary Corby. Massey’s “Hairpin Holliday” takes readers to Christmas in India in 1920, where solicitor Perveen Mistry deals with the polarizing visit of Helene LeVasseur, founder of the Realists and author of the controversial Book of Truth. When the invaluable book is stolen, Perveen must turn detective to salvage what could be a disaster. Corby, whose series novels are set in fifth century B.C. Greece, stays in the Mediterranean but travels to fifteenth century Italy where Niccolo Machiavelli must somehow reconcile the ambitions of Cesare Borgia and the fate of his beloved Florence.
Other notable authors contributing stories are Lovesey; Stuart Neville, whose dark Belfast thrillers have won numerous awards and nominations; Cara Black, author of the Paris series featuring Aimee Leduc; and Stephanie Barron, whose story, like her series, features novelist Jane Austen.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is not only one of the most beloved of all Christmas stories but also serves as a focal point for some of the many current Christmas mysteries.
Donna Andrews, whose Meg Langslow mysteries are perennial award nominees, uses a performance of the play as the setting for her twenty-second entry in a series that combines plentiful laughs and a murder or two.
How the Finch Stole Christmas! (Minotaur, $25.99) finds the little town of Caerphilly, Virginia, getting ready to celebrate Christmas with performances of the Dickens masterpiece starring Malcolm Haver, a once notable TV and movie actor whose career is winding down as his alcohol intake winds upward, as Scrooge.
Haver shows a real knack for eluding the efforts of both Meg and her theater director husband Michael Waterston to keep him sober. Haver’s stumbling (literally) and bumbling his lines during rehearsals has the entire cast worried about upcoming performances.
While that worry would be enough to keep Meg occupied, she is also dealing with a query about a place to hold “Weaseltide,” and no one is sure just what may be involved since no one has ever heard of such a thing. And Meg’s grandfather has a surfeit of Gouldian finches that he is trying to unload on the theater. But the real crux develops when Meg follows Haver, trying to identify his source of forbidden alcohol, and stumbles upon a barn full of animals and a house full of cats.
One might expect the barn animals to include horses or cows, but this barn’s occupants require a caravan: four police cruisers and one transport van, a veterinary van, half a dozen minivans and SUVs, a huge RV, and half a dozen trucks borrowed from construction and moving companies. Together Meg and the police and assorted volunteers round up one tiger; eight adult female golden retrievers, each with a litter of puppies; and chimps, monkeys, and finches. In the house full of cats they also find Jane Frost and her wheelchair as Meg completes the inventory by chasing an escaped puppy and finding a mostly snow covered body.
Andrews mines the chaos surrounding an amateur theater production, the surfeit of animals in need of temporary quarters, the presence of a body, and the possibility that their star actor may also be a murderer to quarry a treasure of laughs and smiles for Christmas presents.
J. A. Hennrikus also uses A Christmas Carol as a centerpiece for her first Theater Cop mystery, A Christmas Peril (Midnight Ink, $14.99). Hennrikus, author of the Clock Shop mystery series, sets this yuletide mystery in Trevorton, Massachusetts, where Edwina “Sully” Sullivan is managing director of he Cliffside Theater Company. A former cop, Sully now has her hands full with handling temperamental theater director Dimitri Traietti and the myriad glitches involved with any production just before opening night.
When wealthy Peter Whitehall is shot in his gated, secure home, the suspects are limited, but when Whitehall’s son and Sully’s long-time friend Eric becomes a prime suspect, and Sully finds herself a surprise beneficiary of Peter’s will, she gets drawn into the investigation. And if things are complicated enough, Whitehall’s attorney is Sully’s unfaithful ex-husband.
James Anderson’s entertaining and original debut novel, The Never-Open Desert Diner, introduced truck driver Ben Jones, who plies a nearly deserted route in Utah serving a couple of small towns, and a handful of colorful characters who live hardscrabble lives in and between those towns.
His follow-up, Lullaby Road (Crown, $26), continues Ben’s adventures, and if the characters aren’t quite as entrancing this second round, they are still well conceived; the author also adds some impressive and quixotic newcomers to spice things up. It is easy to read Anderson just for the characters, the humor, and the beautiful, isolated, and dangerous landscape they inhabit—but there are also crimes, including murder, and Ben’s staunch, if unorthodox principles play a major role in achieving justice.
Anderson gets the story rolling quickly. Early on an icy morning at the Stop ’n’ Gone truck stop, owner Cecil Boone chuckles as he tells Ben that “someone left something for you on Island Eight.” The “something” turns out to be a youngster of five or six and his large dog, complete with a note from a tire shop worker named Pedro asking Ben to care for Juan for one day. By the time Ben goes back for more information, Cecil has locked up and disappeared. Before Ben can even get started on the road, eighteen-year-old Ginny drives up and gives Ben a baby bag, a car seat, and her infant daughter Belle.
Saddled with three unexpected and unwelcome passengers, Ben hits the treacherously slick highway and barely avoids a collision with another truck that appears out of nowhere. The close call leaves him and his passengers shaken but unharmed, but the truck bears a new acquisition—the side-view mirror from the other vehicle is stuck in the right rear corner of his trailer.
Within twenty pages, Anderson has introduced most of the important elements of his story. The mysterious truck will appear and disappear like a ghost ship on the ocean, and turn out to be one that trooper Andy Smith is hunting. The boy Juan, who will not talk in Spanish or English, will turn out to be full of surprises, while his father will prove difficult to find. And Ben will have to make several decisions concerning baby Belle that will affect his relationship with Ginny.
Many of the colorful characters from Anderson’s debut return, including Ginny; Walt Butterfield, owner of the Never-Open Desert Diner; and John, a.k.a. Preach, the man who hauls a large wooden cross up and down Highway 117. And Ben will contend with multiple puzzles, including the mystery truck, the fate of Juan’s father, and a hit-and-run incident involving Preach. Along the way, he will make a grisly discovery and will encounter a grocery clerk, a shotgun-wielding doctor, and the owner of Ginger’s Glass, Whatnots, Handmade Soap and Ballroom Dance Emporium.
Anderson weaves it all into a fascinating universe of broken, stubborn, strong, resourceful, and unique characters occupying the inhospitable desert where Ben ekes out his living.