Yes, there are the "Father Christmas" jokes and jabs, leading a reader to think initially that this is a far cozier mystery than it actually is. It's cozy with thoughtful substance.
For instance, right from the start, we learn that what brought Tom and his nine-year-old daughter, Miranda, to the little picturesque village of Thornford Regis is the murder of his wife, Lisbeth. Her body was left on a porch of his big church in the big city of Bristol. While visiting Lisbeth’s sister, Julia, in Thornton Regis while still in mourning, Tom began to hope that the small village would heal his and Miranda’s wounds.
The village is a wonderfully gossipy, your-business-is-my-business kind of place, in the best Marple-esque tradition and, more recently, also reminiscent of Louise Penny’s Three Pines. The inhabitants all have secrets, and none of these secrets are safe. An admonition of “don’t tell” immediately translates to “don’t tell too many people.”
Among the mysteries is the disappearance of Tom’s predecessor, Peter Kinsey. It is because one day Peter failed to show up for work that Tom now has his job. But where did Peter Kinsey go? Tom and Miranda sometimes play the game, Where is Peter Kinsey? Lounging in the sun, schussing down a slope, fattening himself on gobstoppers perhaps. Wherever. It is a whimsical pastime for Tom and his daughter. Until, of course, Kinsey is found deader than dead. And that’s the SECOND murder victim found within a week. Pretty bad batting average for such a little town.
Pretty, sly, spoiled, 19-year-old Sybella Parry was the first victim. Her body was shoved in a slashed giant Japanese drum, temporarily derailing a performance of the Thornford Regis taiko drummers (presumably there are twelve of them) at the village fair.
The quirky and sometimes charming occurrences and characters hide the underlying sadness of some of the villagers’ stories, including Tom’s. Colonel Northmore’s captivity in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II still haunts him. British-born Mitsuko Drewe, of Japanese ancestry, is married to Liam, a hot-tempered restaurant owner. Sebastian, Tom’s verger (a church assistant), is secretive and burdened. Tom’s sister-in-law, Julia, and her husband, a local doctor, seem tense in each other’s company.
Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper, types a daily gossipy letter to her mother, which proves to be a great way for readers to learn the “real” goings-on of the village.
A wigged-out, washed-up model, a former rock star, belligerent teenagers, taciturn police detectives, a handyman with a small problem, and other necessary personages of village life also add color.
Tom’s faith and pastoral commitment are tried, and his self-adjurations are reminders that Tom spent some time as a civilian – as a professional magician, of all things – before taking up the collar.
With the exception of a couple of four-letter expletives towards the end of the book and with awareness that a couple of controversial issues are covered, this book is firmly polite. I happily recommend it to a wide swath of reading types.
By the way, despite the Christmas references, including the title, this book is not set at Christmas.