Christmas in May

Last fall, I received a copy of Fields Where They Lay (Soho Crime). I'd come across the author, Timothy Hallinan, often--he's been publishing crime novels since 1989, with three protagonists: Poke Rafferty, Simeon Grist and Junior Bender. But I had never read him, and don't know why I decided to read this Junior Bender--in May. Out of season. But I am so glad I did--Junior is quite the find. In this mystery, Junior's hired by a Russian mobster to solve a shoplifting problem in his sad, declining Los Angeles mall. The plot's twists are shadowed by Junior's dislike of the holiday. "My issues with Christmas go way back. In fact, the only seasonal present from my father that I've kept is an aversion to Christmas."

Hallinan's vivid prose amplifies the story. "The astringent December sunlight looked, as always at this time of year, like it had been ladled into the smog with a teaspoon, like vinegar." Characters are deftly sketched: the mobster had "dead-looking, oddly flossy blond hair, like an over-styled child's doll might have after her thirtieth perm"; a woman's taut expression "suggested that she had long ago stopped expecting moments of grace that didn't have a price attached to them."

Bender is assaulted by mobsters, seasonal regrets and relentless Christmas music. "The kid kept singing about his damn drum. Who the hell bangs a drum around a newborn baby?" In addition to some fascinating arcana--you'll learn where the word bric-a-brac came from, as well a get a short history of keys--a story from a Jewish Santa adds a fillip of wisdom. Junior Bender knows "the edge of sorrow is especially sharp in what's supposed to be a season of joy," and he learns how to live with both regret and hope. --Marilyn Dahl

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