"MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS," by Francis Duncan, Sourcebooks Landmark, 345 pages (f)
There is much to like about "Murder for Christmas," Francis Duncan's 1949 Mordecai Tremaine detective murder mystery. Readers get an old-fashioned whodunit wrapped with a snow-dusted English country manor house and a disparate gathering of suspicious guests for Christmas. There are hints of Agatha Christie's long-running play "The Mousetrap" here, as everyone at a multi-day Christmas house party becomes a suspect when one of their number is found dead underneath the Christmas tree, dressed in a Father Christmas robe. The local constable, aided by Duncan's amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine, must work quickly to uncover the killer before he or she strikes again.
The trouble with "Murder for Christmas," really — more than the dated language — is the main man himself, Tremaine. A memorable literary detective should be highly distinctive — think of Sherlock Holmes' observation skills and anti-social behavior, Nero Wolf's deep love for orchids and beer (not to mention those yellow pajamas) or especially Hercule Poirot, who Tremaine seems patterned after, with his thick accent and passion for neatness. But Tremaine, while likable to be sure, never entirely comes into sharp focus. Duncan is quick to remind readers that his amateur detective loves romance novels, wears a pince-nez and is an unassuming presence — which allows him to ask questions without drawing too much attention to himself — but unfortunately, Tremaine draws too little attention to himself, and as a result, readers may be left wondering who this man really is.
However, "Murder for Christmas" still manages to succeed. It's hard to resist a book that kills off Father Christmas (or someone dressed like him) and Duncan will have readers guessing the murder's identity up until the end. Plus, the book itself looks great. Rediscovered only recently, "Murder for Christmas" is part of a new series from Sourcebooks of reprinted golden age murder mysteries, and this one comes dressed — inside and out — for the holidays.
Content advisory: "Murder for Christmas" contains a murder, but not detailed in graphic terms.
— Cristy Meiners
“A CHRISTMAS RETURN,” by Anne Perry, Ballantine Books, 192 pages (f)
A cold case becomes an unexpected part of the holidays in Victorian England for Mariah Ellison, the grandmother of Charlotte Pitt, one half of Anne Perry's detective duo, in “A Christmas Return.”
When an unexpected and unusual package arrives for Mariah, along with a request for her help, she travels to Surrey to help untangle a 20-year-old murder of a friend.
Cullen Wesley, the murder victim and a lawyer, had been defending Owen Durand, who was accused in connection with the death of a young girl at the time of Wesley's death. Although acquitted at the time, Owen has returned to fully clear his name, but in the process has accused the victim’s widow, Rowena, who is also a friend of Mariah’s. Mariah and the victim’s grandson have few clues to start their search, in an era before DNA, fingerprints and detailed forensics.
As Mariah works to clear the names of both Cullen and Rowena, she finds she’s in a unique position to help find healing for some of her own emotional wounds, too, in this mystery that’s about coming to terms with the past and preventing it from repeating.
Content advisory: While "A Christmas Return" includes references to sexual assault and murders, any descriptions are in general terms and not detailed.
— Christine Rappleye
"THE PAINTED QUEEN: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense," by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess, William Morrow, 352 pages (f)
"The Painted Queen" has Victorian amateur sleuth Amelia Peabody returning to Egypt with her family of archaeologists for excavation season. While they try to track down the bust of Queen Nefertiti, they'll have to avoid assassination attempts as the dead bodies pile up.
The book — set between two of the most exciting books in the 20-book series: "The Falcon in the Portal" and "He Shall Thunder in the Sky" — was published after the death of author Elizabeth Peters (the pen name of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz). Mystery author Joan Hess finished the story using Peters' notes, and while the desire to finish the book is admirable, the end result just doesn't stack up against its sisters.
Those invested in the series may want to read this installment, but "The Painted Queen" reads like a lackluster imitation, much like the Nefertiti forgeries that pop up every couple of chapters. Instead, read (or re-read) the series starting with book one, "Crocodile on the Sandbank." The Amelia Peabody series is amusing, informative and addictive — just the right combination to make you curl up with a volume or five on a cold day, binge-reading until you've decided to become an Egyptologist yourself.
Content advisory: All of the Amelia Peabody books contain violence and murder, but never in a graphic manner.
— Ginny Romney