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by C.C. Benison
Doubleday Canada, December 2013
512 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385670176

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's the festive season and time once again for a Christmas novel by CC Benison. The Reverend Tom Christmas, vicar of St. Nicholas's (but do not call him Father Christmas). In this particular entry in the series, it is full summer and Tom finds himself in an airplane, about to skydive as part of a fund-raiser for the parish church. He is far from happy about it and with some good reason, as he manages to sprain his ankle rather badly on landing. He is on the ground in time to see the main entertainment, the Ten Leaping Lords, do their more spectacular descent. This is all the more dramatic as two of the lords are caught on camera engaged in a mid-air shoving match, and then the chute of one of them fails to open. Luckily, the emergency chute deploys and he lands safely.

Tom's ankle confines him to Eggescombe Park, the ancestral home of one of the Leapers - Hector Strickland, tenth Earl of Fairhaven - a pile that would make Downton Abbey look rather cramped. Eggescombe does have a labyrinth, as well as being fully supplied with the usual accoutrements of a great house - a tunnel, a priest's hole, and of course, stables. Tom is invited to join a the house party, which consists of largely of men and women obscurely related to one another and bearing an intimidating variety of titles.

But before he can limp off to visit his two mothers and celebrate his fortieth birthday, a member of the house party is found strangled with a school tie in the garden labyrinth. The local constabulary, in this case DI Derek Bliss and DS Colin Blessing of Totnes CID, are called in to investigate and no one is free to leave.

Faced with characters with names like Bliss and Blessing and Father Christmas, not to speak of the author's own pseudonym, wary readers might fear they are in for a torrent of treacle. But Benison (Winnipegger Doug Whiteway) writes extremely well and has a deft hand with a plot. He is very good at sleight of hand and misdirection, like the Reverend Tom, who was a professional magician before he entered the Church. He also has a quiet but wicked sense of humour.

There is one problem, however. The series has begun to suffer from bloat, with each entry notably longer than the last. It is not easy to sustain what sets out to be a joyous souffle of a book at this length, and Benison begins to flag about two-thirds of the way through.

All the same, there is a great deal to enjoy here and considering how predictable the annual Christmas offering can be, this has much to recommend it, either as a present or for post-holiday reading accompanied by a nice glass of sherry and a shortbread or two.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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