Christmas is now only a month away so I thought I’d recommend some Christmas reading. I’ve picked out five books that I’ve enjoyed and which all capture that festive feeling but in a quirky, off-piste way that rescues them from cliché and adds to the fun.
We have a cop, dressed as Santa, rescuing a child’s Christmas, an angel so stupid he’s in danger of destroying Christmas, a French policeman escaping Christmas by investigating a crime, a collection of stories about Christmas werewolves, and a tongue-in-cheek English Country House mystery.
I hope that at least one of these helps you have yourself a very quirky Christmas.
‘St. Nick’ by Alan Russell
St. Nick is one of my favourite Christmas books. It tells the story of Nick Pappas, a San Deigo cop who has been through a recent trauma that has him suspended from the police force. It’s Thanksgiving and he’s living alone in a shoddy apartment and seriously contemplating eating his gun. He gives himself a reprieve to help his former partner catch some muggers at the shopping mall he runs security for. To catch the muggers, he goes undercover as Santa.
From there, Nick’s life gets taken over by the responsibilities that come with the new uniform he’s wearing. It brings him into contact with a terminally sick boy with an impossible Christmas wish and sends him searching for Laura, a little girl whose letter to Santa is so moving that Nick ends up starting a search to find her and help her. Along the way, he builds relationships with a relentlessly cheerful Head Elf, a nurse in the Pediatric Oncology ward and a woman TV reporter who films a segment from his lap and the quarterback from the San Diego Football team.
What I liked about this book was that it stayed real while dealing with difficult, heart-rending things and still shows the power that the Christmas spirit can have, even over those who don’t believe in it.
‘The Stupidest Angel – a heart-warming tale of Christmas Terror’ by Christopher Moore
‘The Stupidest Angel’ is set in the tiny community of Pine Cove, California, in the week before Christmas. The saddest resident of Pine Cove is seven-year-old Joshua Baker, who believes he’s seen Santa Claus killed with a shovel to the head. What does Joshua want for Christmas? To bring Santa back from the dead. Fortunately for him, there’s an angel in town who can grant his wish. Unfortunately for everyone else this is the stupidest angel ever and the way he grants Joshua’s wish unleashes chaos over Christmas.
The style and the way of thinking is Carl Hiassen meets Tom Sharpe with a dash of Sam Raimi thrown in. Moore manages to pull off writing a book in which we care what happens to the characters, laugh at fights with flesh-eating zombies, cheer when Santa gets what’s coming to him, root for the psychotic warrior princess who is off her meds and believe in a talking fruit-bat.
‘A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories’ by Georges Simenon
‘A Maigret Christmas And Other Stories’ is a collection of three Christmas-themed stories by Georges Simenon: “A Maigret Christmas”, “Seven Small Crosses In A Notebook” and “A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes”.
To my surprise, they are all strong stories. ‘A Maigret Christmas’ was my first meeting with Maigret. I found him to be a gentle, slightly melancholy man who knows himself well enough to understand that he will not change and holds himself to account enough to know that this is something he must sometimes make amends for.
The story takes place on Christmas Day which Maigret intends to spend quietly at home with his wife. It becomes clear that, for Maigret and his wife, spending such a day will require kindness and resolve from both of them.
I was impressed with and puzzled by how clearly and economically Simenon draws the relationship between Maigret and his wife. We don’t get inside Maigret’s head or anyone else’s. I don’t even know his wife’s first name, although she’s present throughout the story. And yet there is a strong sense of intimacy, of the kind where you can recognise someone from the shape of the back of their head or by hearing them cough.
‘Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook’ is another Paris Police Christmas story but this time Maigret isn’t in it. The challenge Simenon set and met in this story was: how do you deliver and solve a tense mystery during two continuous shifts of the Paris police control room, starting on the Christmas Eve night shift and going through the next morning, without ever leaving the four walls of the control room?
‘A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes’ was my favourite of the three stories. It’s subtitled “A Christmas Story For Grown-Ups”. This isn’t a “Miracle On 34th Street” kind of Christmas fable. This is grounded in the reality of Christmas Eve in the big city as experienced by the marginalised or excluded. If Edward Hopper had set “Nighthawks” in Paris on Christmas Eve, he might have painted “A LIttle Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes”.
“Wolfsbane and Mistletoe” edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner
“Wolfsbane and Mistletoe” is a collection of fifteen short stories by well-known authors who have responded to the challenge to write a tale that is set a Christmas and is about a werewolf.
How can you resist a combination like that? Especially when the writers include. Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughn, Kat Richardson, Karen Chance and Dana Stabenow.
I loved the inventiveness, diversity and energy of this collection. Read it if you want a howling good Christmas.
‘The Twelve Clues Of Christmas’ (Her Royal Spyness #6′ by Rhys Bowen
‘The Twelve Clues Of Christmas’ was my introduction to the Her Royal Spyness series, which has since become a favourite comfort read. Although this is the sixth book in the series, it’s in the nature of a Christmas Special and can be read as a standalone, although my guess is that if you like it, you’ll want to go back to the first book, ‘Her Royal Spyness’ and read the rest of the series.
‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’ is a Christmas Cracker of a book where the prize is solving an ingenious set of Christmas-themed murders, the wrapping is a colourful evocation of a 1935 English Country House Party made all the more believable because it’s being constructed for paying guests by gentry who can no longer fund their way of life, and the explosive energy comes from an engaging heroine who is instantly likeable, even though she’s thirty-fifth in line to the throne.