Book Review: The Christmas Carol Murders
Harrison Thurman Books, 2012
For newcomers, probably the single most, well, mystifying suburb of the murder mystery genre is the so-called ‘cozy’ world – and that’s understandable, since the whole thing is a study in contradictions. The main appeal, as the name suggests, is a folksy, inclusive, entirely comfortable setting. But the hinge holding the actual plots is, of course, murder – dead bodies show up in picturesque public gardens, corpses clutter up the cloister-walks, and murderers lurk in the antique shops. The crazed (and, presumably, crazy-enabling) backdrop of the big city is removed, as is the anonymity promised by the presence of millions of potential victims and perpetrators. In the small towns and villages where ‘cozies’ take place, everybody knows everybody else, and the revealed murderer always wears a familiar face. The whodunit becomes a youdunit.
The confined setting of the ‘cozy’ adds to the shock value of any good murder mystery, and that would be fine – if that’s where ‘cozy’ authors left things. But the mystery genre is enamored of the long, multi-book series, and this raises an inescapable problem: if the gaudy murder of a local by a local happens in a small town, that town is briefly in the news headlines, and then people get on with their lives. But if a gaudy murder of a local by a local happens more than once in the same little town – if, for example, there’s a gaudy murder about every four days – the suspension of disbelief is killed outright, by person or persons unknown. The thing parodies itself in virtually no time: in the real world, there’d be tour-buses in and out of places like Bayport or St Mary Mead or Cabot Cove, with laughing guides pointing out the 65% murder rate and scaring little children by suggesting they might be next. The FBI and Interpol would have storefront offices on Main Street. Martial law would be in effect, and there’d be sharpshooters on the rooftops. More importantly, nobody in their right mind would continue to live there.
Debut novelist Christopher Lord presents readers with a quintessential ‘cozy’ murder setting in The Christmas Carol Murders: Dickens Junction, Oregon. The name is no fluke: this is a small town whose minuscule ‘business district’ sports such establishments as The Old Curiosity Shop, Finching for Flowers, Pickwick Pilates, and Pip’s Pages, the town’s bookstore, owned by stately, grey-haired Simon Alastair, descendant of the town’s original founders and, like all the other business owners in the Junction, worried about the future. Hard economic times have shuttered a number of the town’s businesses, so when Mervin Roarke, the pushy owner of the acquisitions firm Marley Enterprises, shows up expressing interest in buying up Junction businesses, it’s cause for extreme caution.
Roarke isn’t the only visitor Simon gets as this light-fingered, enjoyable novel opens: also new in town is Zach Benjamin, a sexy bomber-jacket-wearing writer for a gay travel magazine, come to Dickens Junction to do a piece on “the charms of this little village” – but as clearly interested in Simon’s aquiline profile and flat stomach as Simon is in his dreamy hair and glowing-white teeth (almost a tourist-attraction of their own – Lord several times describes them as actually emitting light, like Zach was one of those weird creatures that live in the Mariana Trench). The two agree to have a drink later that night – after Simon, as a town elder, participates in the Dickens tableau that’s a holiday fixture in the Junction. He’s supposed to play Scrooge confronted by the ghost of Christmas future – in this case, a dummy clothed in black frock and hood.
Only this year, much to the horror of the tableau’s spectators, there’s honest-to-gosh blood seeping out from under the hem of the ghost’s robe. Turns out it’s no dummy – it’s Mervin Roarke, and the game’s afoot.
The murder shocks everybody, although it’ll hardly shock readers – after all, very early in the book we’re told “Dickens Junction is a welcoming community” … a sure sign that the place is positively swimming in sadistic murderers. And as noted, we’re certainly going to know this particular murderer (in fact, readers versed in Dickensian irony will probably be able to spot the culprit well before the end). When Simon is being teased about the arrival of hunky Zach, he retorts, “This is hardly the time to talk about relationships. There’s a crazed killer on the loose” – as if it were ever possible to disentangle gossip from gore in a traditional ‘cozy.’
The Christmas Carol Murders is so smoothly, adroitly done that it’s certain to please any fan of those traditional ‘cozies’ (well, except for readers who think openly gay men are abominations of some kind, but it’s possible Lord wouldn’t want that kind of reader in any case), although it faces the same intractable problem: how on Earth can a second murder in the Junction – even in the next half-century – be in any way believable?
We’ll eventually find out; Harrison Thurman Books claims he’s ‘hard at work’ on further books in the series. Barnaby Grudge? Little Dorrit, D.O.A.? Dombey and Gun?