- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

In Dashing Through the Snow (Simon & Schuster $23, 240 pages), there’s a picturesque snowbound village in New Hampshire full of Christmas cheer, and there is a cast of local characters whose faces are “glowing with good will” as they anticipate not only a “Festival of Joy” but an annual bonus from the generous owners of the local Conklin’s Market.

In view of the fact that this Christmas pudding was put together by the veteran crime writing team of Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, it is discouraging that what is missing is murder.

After all, what is Christmas without one little murder?

The reader’s hopes of homicide in the idyllic village of Branscombe rise with the level of public disappointment when the much anticipated bonus turns out to be photographs of the owner and his mercenary new wife. Not only that, but deep suspicions begin to bubble over possible deception by the winners of a multi-million dollar lottery. Alas, what lies ahead for avid mystery lovers is not mayhem, but a mere case of kidnapping.

The title of the book, reflecting a rollicking Christmas song, heralds what lies ahead, and nastiness is the closest we get to murder. It is also unfortunate that the authors made a dash into saccharin and cliche-ridden prose in a book that is short and shallow, but may not be short enough.

Their cloying approach to the joys of Christmas includes phrases like “food fit for a king” and enthusiasm that is “spread to a fever pitch.” It takes 123 pages to reach the kidnapping of a saintly and weepy young woman called Flower, who is in search of her equally saintly fiance, Duncan, one of the lottery winners.

It defies belief that in Branscombe, that pillar of New England homespun tradition, the first bed and breakfast that Flower finds is owned by a woman of surpassing wickedness, even if she does bake great scones. Poor Flower is gagged and tied up and has to fight for her life. But you know she will live happily ever after. And indeed the evildoers are captured, the village is awash in lottery riches and people even get their bonuses.

If you want a book that requires nothing from the reader except the ability to read, this fits the bill. The only question is why it took two intelligent women to assemble this Christmas fairy story.

•••


The Peculiar Crimes Unit is a unique little group that may constitute London’s oddest and oldest crime-fighting team. In the case of Christopher Fowler’s The Victoria Vanishes (Bantam, $24, 336 pages), Arthur Bryant and John May are on the track of a lonely hearts killer who often strikes in pubs like the mysterious Victoria that doesn’t exist despite its being identified as the site of a recent crime.

Any book in which the opening sentence reads, “She had four and a half minutes left to live” will capture your attention. Bryant and May are a titillating pair who are uncomfortably aware of their own mortality and the possibility that their professional day is past. They squabble and discourse on obscure topics for their own intellectual entertainment, yet they are also torn between contemplation of retirement and refusing to accept the dismantling of their strange little fiefdom. They muddle on conscientiously through the London puddles, applying their own freakish brand of insight to investigations.

Mr. Fowler is a writer of distinction who clearly relishes concocting these tongue-in-cheek adventures in weird crime and odd characters. His plotting is subtly humorous and his writing is appropriately droll in its delineation of two eccentrics whom some of their superiors see as relics of a past era. That notion, of course, is demolished by their success at what they do, despite the way they do it. As long as they can persuade their superiors not to fire them and survive despite their own doubts about themselves, we have faith they will be back.

•••


The brutal slaughter of eight young prostitutes, including one who is the child of an aristocratic family, launches C.S. Harris’ Where Serpents Sleep (Penguin, $23.95, 352 pages) a dark study of depravity and wickedness deep within the aristocracy of 19th-century England.

In this latest Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, Ms. Harris serves up an intriguing mix of bloody murder, incest and brutality. The author, who has done her historical homework, makes a fascinating focus of her book in Hero Jarvis, a young woman whose uncompromising independence puts her far ahead of her time. She uses her socially elevated position as the daughter of a peer to fight for the kind of reform that is still decades in the future.

What makes Hero Jarvis unusually interesting is that she has the support and even reluctant admiration of her remote and arrogant father in her crusade. She also becomes allied with Sebastian St. Cyr, a roving viscount intrigued by the young woman who has chosen to become a social rebel instead of taking her place where she is supposed to be in the world of high-level marriage making .

Jarvis unhesitatingly uses her connections as a base for taking on bastions of the peerage who are involved in the most sordid of scandals. For a glimpse of the darkest side of society, Hero Jarvis is a good guide.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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