A Killer’s Christmas in Wales By Elizabeth J. Duncan, St. Martin’s, 274 pages, $28.99
The Christmas cozy is as much a tradition as carols and plum pudding. This year’s best Yule murder is by Torontonian Elizabeth Duncan. It’s the third book in her very fine series set in Llanelen, Wales, and featuring Penny Brannigan, local amateur sleuth.
Past books fill in Penny’s current state. She’s the owner of a pretty Welsh cottage that she’s now turning into a modern spa. Regrettably, there’s a body in the foundation, a woman buried with her cat. But that’s not the only mystery in Llanelen.
It’s the snowiest winter in 25 years and the local postmistress, a well-off widow, has been fleeced of her life’s savings by a clever con man. When he turns up dead outside Conway Castle, the postmistress is the suspect and Penny is called into action. It all adds up to a very vexing Christmas season, but, in the best tradition of the cozy, the village returns to order in time for some jolly holly.
A Christmas Homecoming By Anne Perry, Ballantine, 212 pages, $20
This is Anne Perry’s ninth Victorian Christmas confection and, surprisingly, it’s the best of the bunch. Perry likes to bring odd characters into her holiday tales, and this one, rooted in the theatre and with Dracula as an extra, is simply delightful.
The central character is Charlotte Pitt’s mother, Caroline, and her younger and much sexier husband Joshua Fielding. Fielding, an actor, has his own theatrical troupe and they are off to the wilds of Yorkshire, where they intend to put on an original play based on the novel Dracula in the mansion of a Yorkshire millionaire. Naturally, things go awry.
Perry can be the smoothest of plotsters, and this time she’s right on scene. There’s loads of atmosphere, plenty of Gothic steam and a clever trick ending. This is a must for Perry fans.
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth By Alexander McCall Smith, Knopf Canada, 261 pages, $29.95
The smart tartan plaid cover of this delightful book needs no wrapping paper. Just put a bow on it and any mystery fan will be happy to find it in the stocking. McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series, set in Edinburgh, is every bit as charming as his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It has better plots, too.
Isabel, the editor of an ethics journal, doesn’t get about much, but does occasionally “help out” at her niece’s deli. There she meets a young Australian philosopher in search of her roots. Seems she was adopted as an infant and taken to Oz. She’s in Scotland in search of her father. Can Isabel help? Sometimes it’s best not to know. As always, McCall Smith tucks in bits of local colour, and we learn more about Isabel’s somewhat fraught personal life.
The Hanging Shed By Gordon Ferris, McArthur & Company, 314 pages, $24.95
Tired of those visions of sugar plums? Dilute the sweet with a stiff dose of gritty, hard-edged Glasgow Noir. Gordon Ferris has turned up a stunning historical novel set in 1946 with an ex-cop-turned-crime-reporter as sleuth.
Douglas Brodie is in Glasgow at the request of a convicted murderer. Once he and Hugh Donovan were friends, but a teenaged romance came between them. Years later, Brodie is still fuming at the betrayal. But the Donovan he sees isn’t the lucky laddie he remembers. Donovan has been horribly mutilated by wartime injuries. The evidence of his crime was in his room and he was too drunk to know how it got there. The victim was the son of the woman he stole from Brodie. He is on the way to the gallows.
Brodie isn’t sure Donovan didn’t kill the boy, but he finds himself sifting the clues and, as the days tick down relentlessly, he knows only that his chase is truly life or death.
Midwinter Sacrifice By Mons Kallentoft, translated by Neil Smith, Hodder & Stoughton, 440 pages, $24.99
Not grim or cold enough for you? This story is set in the middle of Sweden’s coldest winter in generations. Linkoping police detective Malin Fors is summoned at dawn to a grim sight. A man has been hanged from a tree branch in the forest. Before his death he was tortured and beaten. He was killed elsewhere and his body brought to this isolated spot. Who would kill a pathetic loner, a man so isolated that he has not a single mourner? Fors believes she must hear the dead to find the killer, and the dead man “speaks,” although Malin cannot hear him.
This is a dark novel, full of awful people and desperate loneliness. Fors herself is in a sad space, separated from her husband, working long hours away from her only child, trapped in the cold and dark of a Swedish winter. Kallentoft is ruthless in his descriptions, but there is a great story here with solid police work leading Fors to the tale of the dead man in the tree. A must for the fans of Swedish crime novels.
As the Pig Turns By M.C. Beaton, Minotaur, 292 pages, $28.99
No writer goes better with a cuddly throw and a day on the sofa than M.C. Beaton. The Agatha Raisin novels are great for taking the edge off holiday shopping or too much Christmas partying. This time, Agatha is in Winter Parva, an ideal Cotswold village perfectly suited to Christmas sales. But this year was a bust. The tourists didn’t come and the locals didn’t buy at the Christmas shop. So the town council has voted for a January Fête. There are costumed Morris-Dancers and a pig roast on the village green. It’s all destined to make those pesky people loosen their purse strings, but fans know the charm will curdle into murder when Agatha is about. This is a witty, smart novel by one of the British mystery’s best.
Missing Daughter, Shattered Family By Liz Strange, MLR Press, 285 pages, $15.50
Liz Strange’s previous novels have been in the horror/vampire genre, so it’s a bit of a jump to crime. This is a debut for David Lloyd Investigations, set in Toronto. Lloyd is a cop whose career ended after he was hurt in a vicious homophobic attack. Now, he’s running private investigations for very private people, when a case comes along that opens up his personal history. There are some problems, not least that the message gets in the way of the mystery. The gold standard for gay PI novels is still Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series, and Strange is a long way from there, but there is some solid writing here; also, David Lloyd has style and seems destined to return.
Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail's crime-fiction reviewer.