All I Want for Christmas

I love prolific writers, but keeping up with their canon when you have very little time to spare on actually reading for pleasure can be difficult. I somehow managed to fall years behind on one of my favorite series–the Meg Langslow mysteries by Donna Andrews–right around the time she started producing two books per year (a regular mystery and one centered on Christmas–hello, Hallmark? This series is perfect for you), which made it even harder to catch up. I did manage to read two this past week (well, I listened to one in the car on the way home, which made the drive a delightful experience), and yes, both were marvelous as always.

“Hoo! Woo-hoo HOO!…HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!”

The gray-haired couple standing at the tinsel-decked front desk of the Caerphilly Inn started slightly, and glanced over their shoulders in the direction of the hooting.

“That’s just the ornithologists again, Mr. Ackley.” Sami, the desk clerk, had probably been hired for his soothing voice. “Having their conference here, you know. Owl Fest.”

“They haven’t brought in live owls, have they?” Mrs. Ackley’s face was anxious. “Surely the hotel wouldn’t allow them to do that.”

“Jane’s terrified of birds.” The man put a protective arm around his wife’s shoulder.

“Of course not!” Sami managed to look shocked at the mere suggestion. “That would be completely against the Caerphilly Inn’s policies.”

Which is why we’d been confiscating all the live owls various ornithologists kept bringing into the conference, and taking them a few miles down the road to temporary headquarters at the Caerphilly Zoo. The owls, that is, not the ornithologists–although I’d been tempted. Two screech owls, a barn owl, and a northern saw-whet owl so far.

Christmas is hard to write about, really. My favorite quote from All About Eve isn’t nearly as famous as the ones everyone quotes regularly–“I detest cheap sentiment”–and I’ve tried to keep that quote in the forefront of my mind when I am writing. That isn’t to say that cheap sentiment doesn’t have its place in entertainment; there’s comfort to be found in works that can sometimes be cloyingly sentimental. For me, I define cheap sentiment as unearned; not coming from the honest emotions of the characters based on circumstance and situations and interactions, but rather from homilies: blood is thicker than water, family above all else, etc. I’ve always wanted to write about Christmas, but it’s a minefield when it comes to sentiment. I myself have written short stories about/around Christmas, but they seemed trite, cloying, and cheaply sentimental, with “all’s well that ends well” ending because, well, it’s Christmas. Everything is supposed to work out in the end because it’s Christmas, right? Clarence gets his wings, bullied Rudolph becomes a hero, etc. etc. I tried to avoid that with my own entry into Christmas crime writing, Royal Street Reveillon, and am not entirely certain I succeeded. Yes, the guilty were punished, but like Die Hard, it wouldn’t have to be the holiday season for the story to work. (This is why I fall on the side of “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie” because Christmas wasn’t integral to the story; it could have been Thanksgiving or the middle of the summer and still worked.)

And yet, Donna Andrews manages to write a new Christmas murder mystery that leaves you feeling contented, satisfied, and enormously happy when you close the book after reading the last line–and Owl Be Home from Christmas is yet another gold standard work from the master.

The premise of this one is that Meg’s grandfather, wildlife expert and activist Dr. Blake, is hosting OwlFest at the Caerphilly Inn, and of course, his assistant Nigel is off for the holidays to visit family so the onerous task of keeping the conference running smoothly, and solving problems, falls to Meg, who has moved herself, husband Michael, and their twins (Josh and Jamie*) to one of the guest cottages on the property. Christmas is looming on the horizon, and a polar vortex has descended on Virginia from Canada, creating a blizzard that has everyone trapped at the Inn. In fact, the storm has cancelled flights up and down the eastern seaboard, and Caerphilly is woefully unprepared for a storm of this magnitude, with the city’s two snowplows stranded in snowbanks. Meg, as always, makes the best of every situation, and with the help of the impressively efficient Inn manager, Ekaterina, tries to make the situation of being stranded at the Inn as comfortable and fun for the conference attendees as possible.

Naturally, there are some difficult attendees who Meg would love to righteously smite–and certainly deserve said smiting–and when the obnoxious and well-hated villain of the book, Dr. Frogmore, drops dead at the conference banquet, there’s a plethora of suspects…and with the Inn cut off from civilization by the blizzard, obviously the killer is someone on site.

Meg and her intrepid family and friends now have to find the killer–while still keeping the conference running smoothly and continuing with plans to keep the stranded guests entertained and happy; making the best of a bad situation, which Meg is fantastic at doing.

I loved this book. Andrews has somehow managed to keep a series running for over thirty books without dropping a stitch. While other series tend to run dry (my own Chanse series, for example, and I regularly worry about Scotty doing the same), somehow she manages to keep her enormous supporting cast involved and memorable (I deeply appreciate the three-dimensional lives of the supporting cast, and she is expert at deciding which ones to highlight in each book; Rose Noire is becoming a favorite), and I don’t think there’s a single book in this series where I’ve not laughed out loud multiple times while reading. Caerphilly is a charming place, and every time I go back to visit–even if the cast isn’t in Caerphilly in the book–I always am a bit melancholy when I finish and have to face the real world again.

And she has managed to write all these Christmas books with heart, compassion, and love–and isn’t that what Christmas is really all about?

Masterful. Andrews is a gift the crime fiction community should cherish.

*More Josh and Jamie, please.

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