Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Delicious Murder Mysteries to Devour or Give, in EGGNOG MURDER, Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis, Barbara Ross

A fine rain is drizzling here in a silver mist, and it's pure November. One defense is to decorate a bit -- knowing the Big Holidays are racing toward us. I always figure those twinkling lights and glowing candles are intentional efforts to push away short-day-linked depression. And omigosh, the holiday to-do lists and the agony over presents to choose!

Thank goodness, those issues are neatly dealt with, now that EGGNOG MURDER has hit the shelves. This festive mystery volume brings together three noted New England storytellers who dip into the holiday brew and emerge with entirely different crime scenes for their noted sleuths. The only thing in common: eggnog, a traditional beverage that, in its purest form, includes cream, raw eggs, and plenty of booze, generally bourbon, rum, and cognac. (One recipe I regarded called it the "drink that thinks it's a custard pie"; here's a link to Martha Stewart's own version.)

EGGNOG MURDER contains three novellas (call them short books, or extra-satisfying story lengths). Each is about 100 pages long -- well actually, Leslie Meier's contribution "Eggnog Murder," which starts the volume, takes 130 pages. I was glad to break into the tale, knowing I'd reconnect with small-town reporter Lucy Stone in Tinker's Cove, Maine. Sure enough, at the tiny office of the weekly newspaper where Lucy works, a gift-wrapped bottle of eggnog turns up, just in time for the local business open house. Meier comes up with a fascinating way to poison a drink, and a lively set of red herrings -- or do I mean red Santa suits? Every Lucy Stone mystery wraps up some family issues and affection, too, perfect reading to escape those to-do lists for a couple of hours.

You know how your imagination can run away with you when you're reading a good mystery ... well, that's half the point, isn't it? You're trying to figure out the crime and the criminal just a few pages before the sleuth pulls it all together (yes, I really am competitive like that). As I slid merrily into the second novella, Lee Hollis's "Death by Eggnog," I suddenly pictured the three authors daring each other to tackle this theme, confident that they would diverge, and at the same time just as worried as the rest of us over whether their holiday offerings would come out right. And different enough!

Well, they are -- in "Death by Eggnog" Hollis's series sleuth Hayley Powell, a food and cocktails columnist, gets double pressure as she prepares to cover the Maine town's "Restaurant Association Christmas Dinner" event. It's a big deal, one of her co-workers wants to tag along, her brother is entering a recipe that's "killer" spicy, and friction among the year-rounders in the tourist-dependent town of Bar Harbor is running rampant -- although not quite nasty enough to produce the theoretical crime wave that the newspaper may need to juice up its sales figures. So why is Hayley the target when someone actually does die? (Confession: I peeked ahead to the end of the Hollis novella, to check out the recipes. Yes, there are recipes and a holiday note to readers from each author.)

"Nogged Off" from Barbara Ross provides a nifty interlude and set of family revelations for financial-wizard-come-back-to-Maine Julia Snowden. Fans of Ross's "traditional" and highly enjoyable sleuth series know that Julia's been torn over whether to cut all the ties to her former high-income, high-prestige urban job. At the start of "Nogged Off" she's finally closing down her city apartment -- and in the process, taking home to Maine with her a forlorn waif who'd been subletting the place. Is young Imogen jinxed, with all the bad things happening to her? And if she's a target instead, is Julia bringing something wicked with her, back home for the holidays? Imogen's version of eggnog already accidentally poisoned a bunch of people in the city -- what could happen in Busman's Harbor, Maine, though, with one extra guest for the preparations for Christmas? I couldn't stop reading this page-turner that pits family stresses and unexpected crime against the strengths that Julia, her boyfriend, and her mom, sister, and neighbors have already demonstrated.

You could just pick up one copy of EGGNOG MURDER and enjoy reading it yourself very carefully, so you can then wrap it as a gift for a bestie. But that would mean missing out on the pleasure of savoring this great distraction during the weeks to come, because you'd be rushing to finish the book. Besides, the recipes are worth keeping -- I plan to use the "Pecan Puffs" one, in happy memory of the year our neighborhood cookie swap accidentally included seven versions of nut balls. Might as well enjoy them, if they're only cooked up once a year!

So, all things considered, I recommend picking up two copies of EGGNOG MURDER. Unless, of course, you see the need for three. Pass me that gift list again, would you?

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.