Do You Hear What I Hear?

What I am hearing is that Donna Andrews is a master of writing about Christmas.

It’s incredibly easy to become cynical about Christmas; American capitalism’s infection of the holiday has made such cynicism almost de rigueur. The commercialization of what is supposed to be a religious holiday has been a concern for decades–A Charlie Brown Christmas was, after all, produced in 1965–and it is has even been politicized for the last thirty or so years (war on Christmas, anyone?). And while the argument over whether one should say “Merry Christmas” rather than the more inclusive “Happy holidays” has always struck me as particularly stupid (in a multi-cultural society where one cannot easily identify which particular holiday a stranger might celebrate, why would anyone want to risk giving offense? I really don’t understand this modern sensibility that good manners no longer matter), it becomes easier and easier to become tired of the entire thing and want to wash one’s hands of it all.

But Donna Andrews’ Christmas mysteries hit precisely the right chord, and can revive that holiday spirit in even that most cynical of hearts and souls, my own; so much so that I may even revisit the books every December as a necessary reminder of what this season is really supposed to be about.

“Cow manure?”

I was talking into my cell phone, but my friend Caroline Willner, who’d just popped into the kitchen with an armload of brightly wrapped presents, must have thought I was talking to her.

“Is this part of the whole not-swearing-in-front-of-the-boys thing?” she asked. “And what did I do to deserve–oops!” Her voice sank into a whisper. “Sorry! I didn’t realize you were on the phone.”

Although I could see her curiosity was aroused.

“We have access to a variety of manures–cow, horse, sheep, goat, and llama,” I said into the phone. “Much of it’s even organic. Is there a particular reason you want cow manure?”

“Well, any of those would be acceptable,” my caller said. “Especially the organic ones. I just don’t want chicken manure.”

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s so apt to be infected with salmonella. Give me your address and let me know when I can drop by–would sometime later today work? If you can show me the area you want fertilized, I can figure out how much manure is required and how many volunteers we’ll need to spread it.”

It is, as one can assume by the cover and title of this particular Meg Langslow mystery, Christmas time in Caerphilly again, and as always, Meg has her incredibly capable hands full with everything that is going on that she needs to make sure gets taken care of (her competence, list-making, and multi-tasking are all things that I aspire to, and inevitably always fall short on). Caerphilly’s Interfaith Council has, this particular year, come up with an amazing idea to help people out called “Helping Hands for the Holidays”–in which those in need of help can ask for assistance, and Meg and her group will find volunteers to get things taken care of for those in need. It’s an absolutely lovely idea, and who better than mayoral assistant Meg to take charge of such a program as part of her official duties? A Caerfully Christmas, which has become a major source of tourist revenue for the small town, is also in full swing; her house is filled with relatives; and she is hoping, for once, to have a relatively peaceful Christmas.

But that is not to be. One of the projects involved helping Harvey Dunlop (aka Harvey the Hoarder) declutter and de-hoard his home. Harvey’s neighbors loathe him because of his hoarding tendencies (the town has already helped him declutter his yard to mollify his neighbors), and naturally he is suspicious of the de-hoard assistance he is being offered at first, but with so many people willing to chip in and help out–with Meg there to assure him that the purpose isn’t to get rid of everything, but to help him sort and decide what to keep, as well as moving it all out so the house can get some much-needed repairs, Harvey begins to slowly come around. It would be easy to make Harvey the butt of many jokes here, and a lesser writer would probably do so. However, Andrews completely humanizes Harvey, and as we the reader get to know him better, understand his loneliness and sadness and how the hoarding has so completely overwhelmed him…we can’t help but root for him. The lovely people of Caerphilly even throw an impromptu holiday party for Harvey in the warehouse his things are being stored in (honestly, my bitter old cynical self would love to live in this marvelous lovely town full of kind, caring people who look out for everyone), and Harvey actually begins to come out of his shell, has a lovely evening, and everything is look up for him…

..until later that night when he is brutally attacked, and later dies in the hospital.

This was, for me, a complete and total shock. I had suspected that Harvey–with his hateful neighbors and even more hateful relatives–was going to be the murder victim at the heart of this story, but kept hoping he would be the suspect whom Meg would have to clear instead, and as the book progressed and I came to like him as a character more and more, finding so much joy in the way everyone in Caerphilly was working with him to make his life better and the way he was responding to the kindnesses he was being shown, it was a horrible shock to me…which, of course, is yet another testament to Andrews’ gifts as a novelist. I mean, I was seriously upset that he was murdered.

So upset, in fact, that I grimly looked forward to the murderer being caught and thinking of the most horrible ways for them to be punished, and as I kept reading to find out who this monstrous villain was, I was actually angry and outraged and was certain that whatever their fate might be, it wouldn’t be horrible and gruesome enough to satisfy the bloodlust I was feeling.

But this is Caerphilly, and Donna Andrews, and a Christmas book. There are some major twists along the way to the final denouement, and as always, there was a most satisfying conclusion to the mystery and the book, which enabled me to close it with a happy sigh, again reminded of what the season is truly about, and wishing the world was more like the fictional one that exists in this magical series.

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