Everyone knows that after “Twelve Drummers Drumming” and “Eleven Pipers Piping” we receive “Ten Lords A-Leaping,” and author C.C. Benison has come through.
Benison has carved a clever seasonal niche with his English-village mysteries named with verses from “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
With three books out, plus at least nine more to come – factoring in maids, swans, geese, golden rings and a partridge – a Benison mystery is a gift that can lead to more reading pleasure in years to come.
The hero of these modern-day whodunits is a pastor named Tom Christmas, one of those freelance sleuths in the tradition of Miss Marple and Father Robert Koesler, and yes, people do like to point out that he is Father Christmas.
In practice, Christmas himself is reminiscent of Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, from the long-running British TV series “Midsommer Murders,” which has far outrun the books that inspired it by Caroline Graham. Fans of the illicit and larcenous intrigue of those lightly comic tales will find a warm place by the fire with Father Christmas.
In this year’s case, the aristocracy is feeling the heat when one startling murder sets in motion a series of uncomfortable revelations.
Benison does a smooth job keeping his man of the cloth in character, with just enough pastoral care to remind the readers of Christmas’ main role in the village.
With helpful cast lists to open each novel, reading is a breeze, making it easier to overlook the author’s occasional repetitious phrasing (e.g., eyelids are regularly heavy, and equally regularly flutter open). Benison is getting better with each book, making one or all of these three a nice start to a reading tradition. (“Ten Lords A-Leaping,” Delacorte Press, 490 pages; $25; look for the first books in Bantam paperback, about $15.)
The centerpiece of Donna Andrews’ “Duck the Halls” (Minotaur Books; 310 pages; $24.99) is not a dead duck; it is a dead churchman. Just as one church pageant has to move to another venue after the building is “skunked,” a vestryman with a good eye for bookkeeping turns up dead, and hundreds of live ducks cause a flap in yet another sanctuary.
This is the 15th in Andrews’ series of bird-named mysteries and her second holiday special. (The other is “Six Geese A-Slaying.”) Straightforward prose, some goofy touches and solid middle-class sensibilities make her books an entertaining respite amid holiday hubbub.
Some of the best mysteries are those quickly told, and the best of the best have been gathered in two worthwhile collections. “The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries” (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Original; 654 pages; $25) is a keeper, with holiday puzzles featuring Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and contributions from Sara Paretsky, Mary Higgins Clark and Isaac Asimov, among many others.
Spend one night with Rex Stout, another with Doug Allyn and the next with John Mortimer’s Rumpole, and there will still be enough stories left to get you almost all the way to March.
Otto Penzler, who edited the collection, suggests reading some of the stories aloud in a gathering of friends or family.
“It will be the kind of evening that will be talked about with fond memories for years to come,” Penzler writes. “And, if anyone fails to fully appreciate the joys of this gentle, old-fashioned activity, why, then, you can just beat them to death.”
Penzler also is series editor of the annual best mystery collections, with “The Best American Mystery Stories 2013” (Mariner; 448 pages; $14.95 paper) selected by author Lisa Scottoline.
Prolific novelists such as Michael Connelly and Joyce Carol Oates show off their short-form style in 20 smart pieces published for the first time in the past year.
A nice addition to any bedside table.
Staff Reporter Melinda Miller regularly reviews mysteries for The News.