The "detective" is Mavis Lashley, a widow in her retirement. She and her nephew, Dale Sumner, attend a church concert where the choir forms a "living Christmas tree" in a tall, vertical, brightly-lit structure given that holiday shape. Mavis is the volunteer in charge of maintaining the choir's robes. Francis Sedbury, one of the choir, is killed by gunshot during the opening performance. The victim's loneliness and wallflower tendencies had disguised her early stages of pregnancy....
Although this book was marketed as Christmas tie-in, it fails as a holiday story. True holiday stories capture the spirit of the holiday they're about. In this case, it would be "goodwill towards man." (The best examples of Christmas stories are A CHRISTMAS CAROL and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.) No warm, fuzzy feeling arises from somebody helping out another who is in a Bad Place. The holiday season this story uses is simply a backdrop.
The characterization of Mavis is absolutely amazing. Author Robert Nordan effectively portrays her as the retired widow who is intelligent, organized, and tidy. In essence, a homemaker from the not-too-distant days of yore. The paths she takes through the plot, including going to an exercise class, baking cookies for the neighborhood kids, and her activities with the church, provide an excellent, credible picture of a housewife at retirement age. The problem is, the mystery genre has plenty of senior citizen female detectives with Miss Marple at the top of the list.
In addition, despite how well Mavis is drawn, the characters' emotions aren't exploited enough to make the reader really care about her. They're motivated well enough to make their actions credible, yet the story lacks a sense of menace or anything being personally at stake for the protagonist. On the other hand, Mavis does have some character growth. The impact is minimal, but it's there.
Nordan should be credited for playing fair in this 1991 novel, though. He keeps the reader aware of everything Mavis is and the murderer isn't someone who suddenly appears out of left field with no apparent connection to the sequence of events. The hints and murderer are there throughout the entire story, showing the author's skill in crafting mystery, which can be some of the toughest fiction to plot. The author's narration is polished, making it very readable.
In some aspects, DEATH BENEATH THE CHRISTMAS TREE has some exceptional qualities. In others, it's a straightforward mystery with components that are a bit stale. If the reader doesn't crave novelty, this is a satisfying whodunit.
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