I decided to review these two Christmas themed crime novels together, as they were written by the same author team and belong to the same series, or actually two series, one by each author. I think Mary started writing her Christmas novels with Silent Night (which I haven’t read), but the first one I read was All Through the Night, which I think is her first Christmas novel to feature lottery winner and amateur sleuth Alvirah Meehan. The subsequent Christmas novels have been written in co-operation with her daughter Carol, who is a writer in her own right.
Deck the Halls appears to be their first collaboration, but since then they have written a number of Christmas novels together, featuring Alvirah together with Carol’s series sleuth, Regan Reilly and her boyfriend (later husband) Jack.
These two (and All Through the Night) are not mysteries, but rather suspense novels with caper elements. The reader knows the whole time who the criminals are and the viewpoint swings between the sleuths and the villains. They are what I would call “extreme cosies”, i.e. they are a blend of humour, no murder, hardly any violence, and while there is plenty of danger, it is of the kind where no-one gets seriously hurt. There is also an abundance of holiday cheer, the good guys celebrating the holiday together at the end of the stories, with the bad guys safely in the slammer. The fun in reading these books is finding out not whodunnit or howdunnit, but howsolvedit. In fact, I would say they are perfect books to introduce older children or teenagers to the suspense genre.
I’ll review both books together as the good and bad points of both are the same.
Title: Deck the Halls
Year of publication: 2000
Type of mystery: Kidnapping
Setting & time: New York, USA; contemporary
Story: Alvirah Meehan and Regan Reilly meet in a dentist’s office a few days before Christmas and Alvirah witnesses when Regan gets a ransom call from 2 men who have just kidnapped her father. Together the two women, along with Jack Reilly and the NYPD police, search for clues to the identity of the kidnappers and the possible whereabouts of Regan’s father and his chauffeur who was kidnapped along with him.
Rating: A clean suspense novel with a well-developed Christmas theme. 2+ stars.
Title: The Christmas thief
Year of publication: 2004
Type of mystery: Theft
Setting & time: Vermont, USA; contemporary
Story: Alvirah and her husband and a friend, Olive, go to Vermont just before Christmas, along with the Reillys and Jack, to relax at the Von Trapp Family Lodge. Meanwhile, the thief who 13 years before scammed Olive out of her lottery winnings is also heading to Vermont to recover a fortune in diamonds he hid in a tree just before he was caught by the police and sent to jail. The tree just happens to be intended for Rockefeller Center, and this puts the crook’s plan all out of whack. When Olive spots him and he kidnaps her to keep her from notifying the police, Regan, Jack and Alvirah get involved. The crook and his henchmen don’t stand a chance after that…
Rating: Another, even more Christmassy suspense story that delivers plenty of twists and Christmas cheer. 2+ stars.
Review: First, what I liked about both books: the style is easy and deft and makes the story run smoothly. Without textual analysis you can’t tell who wrote what, although logic suggests that Mary must have written the Alvirah and Willy viewpoint scenes and Carol the ones featuring the Reillys. The plots have unexpected twists and red herrings galore, and there is suspense, mostly of the "what will happen next?" variety. The humour is partly due to interesting side characters and spectacularly unlucky and/or stupid villains, and partly because of comical plot twists.
Now for the bad parts: both contain instances of blunt foreshadowing that is clearly meant to act as a hook to make the reader continue reading, but is really superfluous as the preceding sentences are in both cases loaded with the same meaning and the foreshadowing just takes the edge off it. And while there is certainly suspense, the ending is never in doubt, as the criminals are just too darn stupid and unlucky to be much of a match against the clever heroines. It’s funny, but it takes away some of the suspense, because for suspense to really work, the reader must be given reason to doubt that good will prevail. With villains like these, much of the doubt is removed. Another botheration is that there are just too many damn coincidences that deliver clues into the sleuth’s hands. They hardly have to do any sleuthing at all, just wait for the next clue so they can do some clever deducing and wait for the next clue. Because of all that, I can’t give either more than 2+ stars, and the + is their ability – in spite of the flaws – to deliver some genuine Christmas cheer to the reader.