My own primary interests follow two paths: Southern literature on the one hand, building off of my own roots as a native North Carolinian, and then crime fiction, a love that first began in my childhood (Nancy Drew! The Three Investigators!) and continues to this day. When an author’s work lies at the intersection of those two paths… well, that author is nearly destined to rank high among my favorites, and so it is with Margaret Maron, whose novels I’ve written about several times here on this site and elsewhere too.
With nearly every series writer in the mystery genre, the opportunity eventually presents itself to write a holiday book — and Maron’s latest marks the second time she’s tried her hand at it. Maron’s earlier series, featuring New York homicide detective Sigrid Harald, included the novel Corpus Christmas, focused on the murder of an art dealer just before the holiday (even if not delivered with all the trimmings that usually accompany such books). The latest in Maron’s Deborah Knott series is Christmas Mourning, in which big holiday festivities are put on hold by a trio of deaths: a car crash involving a popular high school cheerleader and the shooting death of two much rougher teen brothers. Deborah’s kinfolk have been so much the heart of this entire series that it only makes sense to check in with them at the height of the season. As Kirkus Reviews wrote of the new book: “Maron makes you yearn to belong to an extended family, bake Christmas cookies with the Knott nieces and nephews and climb into Dwight’s arms. She plots like a modern-day Christie, but the North Carolina charm is all her own.”
I’ve also recently been reading another set of holiday mysteries: Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penzler, proprietor of the bookshop itself. Each year since 1993, Penzler has commissioned an original story from one of the genre’s major writers, printed it as a small booklet, and offered it as a present of his own to customers of the store. The new anthology gathers the first 17 of these stories, beginning with a story by the late Donald E. Westlake (featuring his hard-luck criminal hero John Dortmunder) and closing with the 2009 offering, a contribution by Mary Higgins Clark. In between are quite a number of masters, including Edward D. Hoch, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, S.J. Rozan and Anne Perry, among many others. Hearkening back to my opening sentence above, I particularly enjoyed the story “Christmas Spirit” by North Carolina-based author Michael Malone. Fans of Malone’s books Uncivil Seasons, Time’s Witness and First Lady will be pleased to see Chief-of-Police Cuddy Mangum in a light holiday diversion (and will appreciate Cuddy’s exchange with Penzler himself, a character in the story, who asks him, “Are you sure this place, North Carolina, exists?”).
Rounding out this Christmas mystery column is an anthology which — despite its name and its cover image of a holiday tree with a skull on top — doesn’t actually focus on holiday stories at all. I was fortunate enough to get a copy of A Criminal Brief Christmas at this past year’s Bouchercon in San Francisco. The collection features short fiction by the columnists for Criminal Brief, the Mystery Short Story Weblog Project, beginning with a story by the site’s founder, James Lincoln Warren, and including works by Melodie Johnson Howe, Robert Lopresti, Deborah Elliott-Upton, Angela Zeman, John M. Floyd, and Leigh Lundin. (In keeping with my theme here, I’ll recommend “Four for Dinner,” a very short, very sharp story by Floyd, billed as a “Mississippi gentleman.”) The book, published in 2009, also features a foreword and afterword by Steven Steinbock, who commented that he was “the only member of the Criminal Brief crew who has not had any fiction published” — a situation remedied in early 2010 when he debuted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine with “Cleaning Up.” While A Criminal Brief Christmas was printed in a very limited edition and isn’t widely available, I did want to take a moment to recommend more people toward this fine site. If you haven’t checked it out already… well, ’tis the season to do so now. — Art Taylor