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Ten Lords A-Leaping, by C.C. Benison

Ten Lords A-Leaping

By C. C. Benison

Doubleday Canada, 512 pages, $29.95

The Christmas Mystery may have begun in Bethlehem, but for crime devotees, it began with the clever Dame Agatha Christie's idea of publishing something special for the season. C.C. Benison carries on that great tradition with her Twelve Days series, featuring the Reverend Tom Christmas of Thornford Regis and his forays into murders that take precedence over the goose and pudding.

This time out, Christmas's case takes him to the regal splendour of Eggescombe Park, home to the Earl and Countess of Fairhaven, their son Maximilian, and assorted servants, guests, visitors. Who dies? Why? That's the fun in this cleverly plotted amuse bouche set in one of those English country houses that never seem to age. Perfect for the weeks awaiting the next season of Downton Abbey.

The Santa Klaus Murder

By Mavis Doriel Hay

British Library, 288 pages, $15.67

Hurrah to British Library Crime Classics for rediscovering some of the forgotten gems of the Golden Age of British crime writing. This extremely clever country-house murder mystery by Mavis Doriel Hay is the perfect holiday gift for the avid cozy-crime fan. It has an aristocratic setting, a dead earl, and a major suspect. The man who could have done it is Santa Klaus – but what motive could he have for putting a bullet in Sir Osmond Melbury's noggin? There are loads of clues, red herrings, and twists in a truly classic Christmas mystery with all the Golden Age patina.

Duck The Halls

By Donna Andrews

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $28.99

Donna Andrews is best known for her bird mysteries but this smart and funny tale manages to keep the theme without sinking to turkey jokes. It's the perfect village Christmas as Meg Langslow shops, cooks and decorates at warp speed to get everything perfect for the big day. A few nights before Christmas, the church is vandalized with a cageful of skunks. The Christmas Concert must be moved to Trinity Episcopal and then there's a lost boa, a churchful of ducks, and a dead body to be dealt with all before the carols can begin. This one is great fun.

Blood On A Saint

By Anne Emery

ECW Press, 336 pages, $24.95

The seventh book in the series by Halifax lawyer Emery is one of the best yet. The unlikely combo of priest Brennan Burke and lawyer Monty Collins are faced with a collision of faith and celebrity. A parishioner of Father Burke claims to have seen the Virgin Mary in the churchyard. The press picks up the story and Burke and his parish are besieged, worst of all by a loud talk-show host. When a corpse ends up on the apparition spot, the talk-show host is the suspect and Monty Collins is called in to defend. Collins and Burke each have part of the answer to why and how it happened, but one is bound by the seal of the confessional and the other by solicitor-client confidentiality.

Cross and Burn

By Val McDermid

Atlantic Monthly, 448 pages, $26.50

This return of the team of Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Carol Jordan is the perfect gift for the mystery fan on your list. McDermid is at the top of her form in this sizzling story of a serial killer of women who bear a striking resemblance to Jordan. Along with the mystery to be unravelled, there's conflict between Hill and Jordan, a holdover from a previous case that left Carol's brother and sister-in-law dead. As events pull the pair into action, there are terrible forces at work. You will not put this one down until the final sentence.

Presto Variations

By Lee Lamothe

Dundurn, 416 pages, $11.99

What would Christmas be without a truly bloodthirsty crime novel to cut all the treacle? Here, right on time, we have the third of Lee Lamothe's hard-boiled series set in a fictional spot on the U.S.-Canada border where Detective Ray Tate and Djuna Brown solve cases no one wants solved in a city where law may just be the last man (or woman) with a gun. Salty, smart and sexy Ray and Djuna are back from a Paris case and trying to pretend they're still there. But cocaine enters and mayhem follows as the pair face, again, the hard reality of law enforcement in their city. Great grit.

Critical Mass

By Sara Paretsky

Putnam Adult, 480 pages, $28.50

Yes, I know. There have been some regrettable bobbles in the fictional life and times of V.I. Warshawski. However, with Critical Mass, all is forgiven. Even with a plot that begins in Nazi-era Austria, this novel spans time and issues that have never gone cold. A major character, a brilliant woman, is based on a real person. The plot involves atomic secrets, the men who developed the bombs and the ones who betrayed them. All of it is woven into a tight plot with V.I. desperate to help her devoted old friend Dr. Lotty Herschel. How does the long-ago impact on the today? Read and see.

The Monster Of Florence

By Magdalen Nabb

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $26.95

The late Magdalen Nabb never wrote a bad book and so the reissue of some of her best by Soho Crime is a real joy. She's well worth discovering by a new generation of readers. The Monster Of Florence, based loosely on a real serial killer, is one of the best of her works and readers can revel in the streets, sounds, smells of Florence as Marshal Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri hunts for a killer who kills unmarried couples and leaves no clues, not a trace, to help the police stop him. This is the perfect holiday escape. Sip some prosecco and head to Italy.

A Nasty Piece Of Work

By Robert Littell

Thomas Dunne Books, 272 pages, $28.99

This is a great mystery novel from one of the masters of the espionage genre. Lemuel Gunn is a former CIA agent and a veteran of Afghanistan. He left that life to settle into a modest existence in the New Mexico desert. There, he encounters a woman in trouble: Ornella Neppi is trying to keep her uncle's bail-bonds business afloat but a cocaine case has jumped bail. Can Gunn help? It seems that the bail jumper never existed before his one encounter with the cops. Clever plotting in a really good updated noir tale.

Plague Ship

By Leonard Goldberg

Midnight Ink, 384 pages, $17.50

Envy the neighbours who skipped the Christmas cheer and went on a cruise instead? Dive into this terrifying little tale of a ship gripped by a deadly virus with everyone, including the on-board doctor, susceptible, medical supplies running out, and the ship banned from docking. Trapped passengers try to take events into their own hands with terrifying results. You'll never cruise the Caribbean again.

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