Whichever category you're in, you can take it like a tightrope walker and just look straight to the other side, colored lights and candles and all ... or you can look down from that tightrope ("face reality") and assert that there's not a chance that you'll make it through the holidays without disappointing someone. Most likely, yourself. And the people you love, which is even worse. Ouch.
And that is why, in 12-step groups, the main teaching about any holiday, even the Big Ones, is: It's just another 24 hours. You make it through, the same way, trying to take the next right step.
Cut (as they say in Hollywood) to the latest Junior Bender crime novel from Timothy Hallinan. FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY is number six in this series and in spite of the protagonist's name, this is emphatically not a mystery for kids. "Junior" is Junior Bender's real first name, and he's an adult with a broken marriage, a disillusioned ex-wife and daughter, and a lover who refuses to even tell him where she's come from, although in the last book (King Maybe) Junior bared one of his own deepest secrets to her. The setting is Hollywood (the city, not the film sets), now, and the time, very importantly, is the run-up to Christmas. Junior is a professional thief, with some very questionable connections from recent efforts. When he asks long-time buddy Louie the Lost to come drive him to an important meeting, they connect at a car repair shop ,with Junior bringing the coffee and pie. Junior's complaint about the greased-up place doesn't get him far.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. So? What's the emergency?" Louie swept aside some sparkly Christmas cards, heavily accented with black fingerprints, to make room on Pete's desk for the pumpkin pie. ...That gives you some idea how bad it could be to work for Tip Poindexter. Unfortunately, Junior doesn't have much choice. Poindexter is actually a violent and sadistic Russian mob type (call him Vlad, say) who knows where Junior's family lives. And for Junior, having his ex-wife and daughter tortured and killed (or even worse, kept alive) by a Russian mob-type sadist would be considerably worse than not getting them the right Christmas gift, wouldn't it?
"So," I said, "I've got to talk to a guy named Tip Poindexter."
Louie was sliding his feet experimentally across the grease on the floor. "Tell you what," he said without looking up. "Here's my best suggestion. Go get your passport. Go get all your passports. Then go to Pakistan with a lot of plane changes and double-backs and new names along the way. And stay there."
Yes, Christmas is indeed part of the problem. What Junior needs to solve -- very very quickly -- is why the theft statistics have escalated sharply at a festively bedecked shopping mall outside Hollywood that the mobster and his "friends" own. Maybe it's a good thing he's got this challenging problem, because his girlfriend shows signs of being about to vanish (forever? or until the holidays are past, at least) and he still hasn't bought gifts for anyone. He has some very good reasons to hate Christmas. Reasons that are big enough where even a 12-step group isn't going to provide an attitude adjustment.
So why would you want to read this book? You already probably know (crime fiction being what it is) that someone's going to get killed. You know Junior's going to screw some things up, and his chances of making Christmas work out get more slim with every fresh crisis.
And yet ... there's a refugee making a new life with a leather shop. A Jewish man named Shlomo wrapped in red velvet and fur as the second Santa in the mall, and dispensing old-fashioned (time-tested) wisdom. There are Junior's allies: not just Louie the Lost, but also two amazing tech wizards in teenage girl form named Anime and Lilli, who've helped before, and some decent folks among the ripped-off merchants at the mall. And there's the desperation that the approach to the biggest holiday season of the year can bring: Somehow, Junior knows he's got just one chance to make things right.
Don't you want to see whether he can do it? With a little help from his friends, of course. Or, again with the crime fiction part of your reading brain, don't you want to see which part is so far out of his control that Junior loses someone or some love forever??
Hold it right there. With friends like Junior's, and with his recent discovery that he can love and be loved, there's a lot of reason for hope, after all. Keep reading.
Oh, that's right -- you don't have the book yet. Well, that's the easy part to fix. It came out a couple of weeks ago, from Soho Press, so it's even still in the first edition. When you pick up your copy, clear the decks (you can catch up on your lists later, and you'll feel better about them if you give yourself the experience of FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY first). Here's one more example of the gems in here: When Junior takes his teenage geek assistant Anime to meet Shlomo, the Jewish Santa, here's the conversation:
Shlomo gave her all his attention. "Have you been good?"See what I mean?
"Oh," she said. She fidgeted. "Um, not very."
"She's been fine," I said. "Better than fine."
"I can see that in her eyes," Shlomo said. "What are you going to give for Christmas?"
Anime's eyes widened. "Give? Oh, right, thank you for asking."
Even if you hate the holidays with reasons just as good as Junior's -- or especially if you do -- this book is still the best gift you can give to yourself. And if you've already found hope and joy and a sense that you're not obligated to complete all those lists and that the people you love really do love you back ... well, maybe you'll recognize something in here, too.
Best of all: The finale. It provides the best promise that the author of a highly entertaining and intriguing series of mysteries can offer. And I bet you know exactly what that means.
Read on! And ... happy holidays. It may only be 24 hours on the Big Day ahead, but that gives 24 chances to fill each one with something worth appreciating. It's the holiday spirit, after all.
What am I going to give for Christmas (Hannukah)? Hmm. I might need some more copies of this book.
PS: Tim's website isn't up-to-date. I think it's forgivable, considering he's busy writing good books. Check out the Soho Crime site instead. And ... Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.