These authors belong on Santa’s naughty list.
In their latest literary releases, they’ve taken a joyous holiday, Christmas, and twisted it with cynical holiday tales of murder and mayhem.
Of the six thrillers and mysteries that we’ve examined, most of the authors keep the proceedings reasonably jolly throughout. But two in particular are very dark — and one is downright demented.
▪ Fields Where They Lay, by Timothy Hallinan (Soho Crime, $25.95) — The sixth in a series of comic mysteries featuring Junior Bender, a professional thief and amateur sleuth, is set in a California shopping mall owned by a dangerous Russian gangster.
Timothy Hallinan’s fourth Junior Bender novel, ‘Herbie’s Game,’ received the 2015 Lefty Award, given to the year’s best humorous mystery.
Junior is brought in to investigate an alarming spike in shoplifting complaints during the holiday shopping season. But it quickly becomes clear that something more nefarious is going on in this place.
Edgerton Mall is a low-rent spread that the big-chain stores have fled, leaving only fringe shops such as Vape and Vamp (which sells e-cigs and lingerie!), The Antique Geek and Jenny’s Knit & Purl.
The not-so-jolly Junior initially has contempt for the “glittery mall full of gift wrap, candy canes, bright ribbons, sugar-stimulated children and the repetitive racket of seasonal music.” His mood darkens even more after a car chase, a gun battle and a couple of murders that he’ll feel compelled to solve.
▪ Dying for Christmas, by Tammy Cohen (Pegasus, $26.95) — This disturbing thriller makes a mockery of the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Jessica is a young woman who goes Christmas shopping one December afternoon, meets a charming fellow who looks like “the guy from Silver Linings Playbook” and goes home with him for a drink. Big mistake. Turns out he’s a sick madman who won’t let her leave.
Dominic cuffs and chains Jessica, makes her sleep in a dog kennel and gives her creepy presents every day, beginning with a box of his baby teeth.
There’s a massive twist coming. Suffice to say that Jessica isn’t as helpless as she first seems.
Alas, the surprise isn’t juicy enough to compensate for the sadism and the idiot plot. (You know what an idiot plot is, don’t you? It’s a story that moves forward only if every character is a complete idiot.)
Anne Holt spent two years working for the Oslo Police Department before founding her own law firm and serving as Norway’s Minister for Justice in 1996 and 1997.
▪ The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, by P.D. James (Knopf, $24) — This slender short-story collection, from the legendary English crime writer who died in 2014, includes two Christmas tales.
The title story is a seemingly proper 1940s English cozy murder mystery set in Stutleigh Manor, the kind of place that comes with requisite servants and an air of foreboding. But don’t be lulled into complacency: There’s a subversive undercurrent of wickedness at work in the plot.
The main attraction for most James fans, however, is the two stories featuring her most popular character: Adam Dalgliesh of the Metropolitan Police Service at New Scotland Yard. One of the capers, titled The Twelve Clues of Christmas, is one that Adam sizes up as “pure Agatha Christie.”
▪ Beyond the Truth, by Anne Holt (Scribner, $26) — This is the seventh in a series featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen, a savvy Oslo police detective created by one of Scandinavia’s most popular crime writers.
The book, originally published in 2003 but only now made available in English, presents us with four dead bodies found days before Christmas in the home of a family of wealthy shipping merchants.
Holiday family gatherings are often ruined by infighting and backstabbing, but this is extreme.
Joanne Fluke has a rule she never breaks: “Poison can be used as a murder weapon in my books. But it can never be in something that Hannah bakes.”
▪ Christmas Caramel Murder, by Joanne Fluke (Kensington, $20) — The latest in a long series of cozy culinary mysteries featuring Hannah Swensen, small-town baker and busybody sleuth, involves the annual Christmas play in Lake Eden, Minn., and the cold-blooded murder of a sinful Mrs. Claus.
After more than 20 books, the crime rate in Lake Eden is off the charts. Hannah’s habit of sticking her nose where no police department would let her also defies credibility. But it’s best not to question the implausibilities and just enjoy this as a tasty escapist treat.
Speaking of treats, the book is stuffed with a dozen delicious-sounding holiday recipes from The Cookie Jar, Hannah’s bakery.
▪ Feliz Navidead, by Ann Myers (William Morrow, $7.99): This paperback original is the third “Santa Fe Mystery” featuring chef Rita Lafitte of the Tres Amigas Cafe.
This series of cozies gets brownie points for its clever titles. The first two books were Bread of the Dead and Cinco de Mayhem. In this one, Rita’s daughter is performing in the annual play in which one of the actors turns up dead.
Rita vows to stay away from the case. But how likely is she to keep that promise?
And just like in the Swensen books, enticing recipes are included.