It's beginning to look a lot like murder
'Tis the season to jolly and suburban mom Jane Jeffry's in a mad scramble to finish her cookie baking and household chores before her teenage kids arrive home. Also expected are two moms-both the late husband's mother and the disapproving mater of Det. Mel VanDyne, Jane's significant other. The kitchen is a disaster zone, the dog has decorated the house with hair, and the earsplitting racket coming from the neighbors tacky, music-making Christmas display is driving Jane crazy. Now she has to get the green icing out of her hair and be ready to host her post-caroling dinner party.
One thing Jane isn't ready for is a surprise visit from a muckraking TV "action reporter," disguised as Santa Claus. The nasty old St. Nick is out to wrap a happy holiday caroling into a package marked "scandal," but before he has a chance to color the event with yellow journalism, his red-suited body slides off the neighbor's roof to land, silenced forever, on the horns of a plastic reindeer. It looks like Santa's mishap is no accident and, with the help of her friend Shelley, Jane finds plenty of suspects. The phony Santa has an ex-wife and a female assistant who both hate him, and plenty of nice people ruined by tales of naughtiness. Now Jane has to find the Grinch who thought murder was a way to save Christmas before the holiday turns into the unhappiest day of the year.
Quintessential mom in tennis shoes Jane Jeffrey is once again thrust into a murder investigation, but this time the murderer is very close to home indeed. In The Merchant of Menace, the 10th of the series by Jill Churchill, Jane finds herself in the midst of the Christmas rush and hosting two celebrations back-to-back: neighborhood caroling party one evening and a cookie exchange the following day. The two gatherings are meant to bring the community together, but when a TV reporter is found dead during the singing, it becomes obvious that at least one of the neighbors is harboring something besides goodwill towards men. As Jane and her coconspirator Shelly explore just who might have reason to shove someone off a roof, their sleepy suburb (Chicago is the ostensible nearby city, but the setting could be anywhere there is snow in December) suddenly steams with secrets.
Churchill has done well with this cozy series in which each title is a play on words of a more illustrious piece of literature. The Merchant of Menace fits into the mold: a witty and gentle dose of murder and mayhem coupled with a wry appreciation for the terrors of suburban parenting (teaching teenagers to drive, helping with the homework, meeting the prospective in-laws) and middle-aged romance. The travails of Shylock are perhaps too oppressive for most Christmas readers, but The Merchant of Menace is certainly suitable for passing around with the Christmas cookies and holiday punch. --K. Crouch