Murder, mystery aren’t overlooked in Christmas-themed books

Away in a Manger Molly Murphy Mystery by Rhys Bowen
Away in a Manger Molly Murphy Mystery by Rhys Bowen

As the gift-giving season begins its takeoff, you may be at the “wonder” stage. That is, “I wonder what to get for So-and-So.”

One trusted option is a book, which requires thoughtful consideration of the giftee’s tastes and sensibilities, and insight into his/her reading habits. It’s a more personal offering than, say, a food processor or a drone (and what could go wrong with that?). No other tidy package can deliver such a sense of escape, a sprawl of diversion and hours of private pleasure.

Given the season, we focus on Christmas-themed titles, from mysteries and romances to fantasy and and feel-good:

▪  L.A.-based Junior Bender is a good-natured burglar and “fixer,” as author Timothy Hallinan has shown in the six-title series. “Fields Where They Lay” finds him working on the shoplifting problem at a declining mall owned by a “murderous Russian gangster” (Soho Crime, $26, 384 pages). Well, you know how it goes – two murders in two days, compounded by Junior’s bad case of the holiday blues.

▪  British novelist Tammy Cohen brings a dark psychological thriller to the party in “Dying for Christmas” (Pegasus, $26, 400 pages). Out Christmas shopping one day, a woman is abducted and held captive by a madman who forces a “12 days of Christmas from hell” on her, giving her “gifts from his twisted past.” Little does he know that Jessica has a surprise present for him, too.

▪  Rhys Bowen of San Rafael is best-known for her 16-title Molly Murphy series, about an Irish immigrant-turned-detective in early 20th-century New York City. In “Away in a Manger,” Molly and her young ward investigate the situation of two children from an upper-class background whose mother has vanished, leaving them at the mercy of a cruel aunt and the wintertime streets of the city (Minotaur, $16, 256 pages). Bowen has appeared for the Bee Book Club.

▪  New York Times best-selling author Anne Perry takes us to 1900 Palestine and Israel in “A Christmas Message” (Ballantine, $20, 176 pages). There, a woman and her husband on tour meet a fellow traveler, who is murdered over a piece of parchment bearing strange writing. They take up his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with a killer shadowing them. Finally, a remarkable testimony from the past is revealed. Perry has appeared for the Bee Book Club.

▪  Former antiquarian bookseller Charles Lovett took a risk by writing the “sequel” to Charles Dickens’ immortal “A Christmas Carol.” In “The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge,” 20 years have passed since the miser turned philanthropist, but something is amiss (Penguin, $13, 128 pages). Now Scrooge plots to relieve his old business partner, Jacob Marley, of his ghostly chains forged by greed – with some help from the trio of spirits who originally showed him the light.

▪  Queen of light romance Debbie Macomber returns with her annual seasonal offering in “Twelve Days of Christmas” (Ballantine, $20, 288 pages). The effervescent Julia makes it her mission to break through the Scrooge-like facade of her neighbor, Cain. Finally, she uncovers the kind man behind the gruff front. They’re falling for each other, but there’s just one thing – the super-popular blog Julia launched, detailing her campaign to bring Cain into the light. Now she has to break the news to her potential new-found love. Awkward …

▪  Another holiday tale that involves a blog is “The Mistletoe Secret” by Richard Paul Evans (Simon & Schuster, $20, 320 pages). Alex is touched by the posts of a lonely woman blogger identified only as “LBH.” He manages to track her to a small town in Utah, where by chance he meets another woman, Aria, a waitress who helps him in his search. Finally he finds the lovely LBH and uncovers her secret – much to his joy.

▪  “Christmas Bells” by Jennifer Chiaverini (Dutton, $16, 352 pages) finds a music teacher who learns her music program for underprivileged children has undergone budget cuts. Undaunted, she finds inspiration in teaching her student choir the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story goes deeper with currents of “romance, tragedy, history and holiday spirit.”

▪  Coloring books for adults was a publishing craze in 2015, with 12 million of them sold. They’re still around, with “Johanna’s Christmas” striking the right note for the holidays (Penguin, $15, 80 pages). It offers some concentrated relaxation during the holiday hubbub.

▪  David Rosenfelt – who lives with 25 rescued golden retrievers – has carved a genre niche with his 15-title “Andy Carpenter” mystery series. They track the adventures of defense attorney Andy Carpenter and his concern for any dog that comes along. “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas” finds Andy defending the owner of a puppy-rescue business who’s charged with murdering a troublesome neighbor (Minotaur, $25, 336 pages).

▪  The four-legged star of Sheila Norton’s “Oliver: The Cat Who Saved Christmas” is left out in the cold when the pub where he lived burns down (Thomas Dunne, $25, 320 pages). Being a cool cat, he befriends a little girl in need and even manages to work a miracle in the village he now calls home.

▪  “A Gift From Bob” and a prequel, “A Street Cat Named Bob,” by James Bowen are annual faves, lighting up pet lovers. In 2007, Bowen was a street musician when he adopted a ginger cat he credits with “saving my life,” as told in the true story “Street Cat” (St. Martin’s, $15, 320 pages). The inspirational drama gets a Santa suit in “Gift,” in which the author learns a Christmastime lesson from his cat (Thomas Dunne, $15, 192 pages).

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe