If you’re a customer of The Mysterious Bookshop, you may have been lucky enough to receive a very special Christmas gift. Each year since 1993, owner Otto Penzler has commissioned a short story by a prominent writer of crime fiction. Each writer is asked to set the story at Christmas, to make it a mystery, and to have at least part of the action take place at The Mysterious Bookshop. The stories are published in booklets and given to Penzler’s customers as Christmas gifts. Those limited editions have naturally become collector’s items, and some of the individual titles would now cost you quite a bit, if you could even find them.
But readers can now find all these stories in Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop. This collection boasts a table of contents that any editor might envy, from the first story by Donald E. Westlake to the last by Mary Higgins Clark.
Some of the writers involve their well-known series characters in the action. In the Westlake story, it’s Dortmunder, everyone’s favorite inept criminal mastermind. Lawrence Block’s tale is narrated by Chip Harrison, and John Francis Cuddy appears in Jeremiah Healey’s story. George Baxt gives us Pharaoh Love, and Nick Velvet is after another worthless object in Ed Hoch’s contribution. Another Cuddy, this one Cuddy Mangum, narrates Michael Malone’s “Christmas Spirit.”
While many of the stories are quite funny, S.J. Rozan’s “The Grift of the Magi” has more puns and rhymes and jokes than any of the others. Lisa Atkinson’s title, “Yule be Sorry,” matches Rozan’s for punning, but the comedy’s more muted in the story itself. Ann Perry’s “My Object all Sublime” has a funny and satisfactory conclusion that any writer can appreciate, and Rupert Holmes and Mary Higgins Clark both present a neat combination of laughter and seriousness. Ron Goulart does the same in “Murder for Dummies.” I particularly liked Jonathan Santlofer’s “The 74th Tale” because of the very funny Poe homage that constitutes the tale within the tale.
Ed McBain’s “I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus” is quite dark, and a couple of other offerings are also on the serious side, including Thomas H. Cook’s “The Lesson of the Season” and Andrew Klavan’s “The Killer Christian.”
Charles Ardai’s “Cold Reading” is a nice bow to both John D. MacDonald and the methods of Sherlock Holmes, and one of the entertaining things about every story in the book is that the writers all manage to work in references to other writers and their works. In fact, they seem to take a lot of pleasure in tweaking their friends, and those friends include Penzler, who claims that the character with his name in so many of the stories is entirely fictional. Maybe so, but that character seems remarkably consistent, no matter who’s writing the story.
And they’re all fine stories, all of them variations on a theme. If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for the book lovers and readers on your list, you can’t go wrong with Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop.