2012-Twelve Drummers Drumming

Twelve Drummers Drumming, by C. C. Benison ($15)

C. C. Benison (a pseudonym) has written an interesting, liturgical mystery. Tom Christmas is a vicar in a small, charming English village. Despite the obvious assumption, it is not a book set at Christmastime, but it is a cozy with a definite contemporary feel.

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 London. While visiting Lisbeth's sister, Julia, in Thornton Regis soon after Lisbeth's death, 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 Miss Marple 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" immdiately 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 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. 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.

Madrum 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 uttered (by the villain) towards the end of the book and with the awareness that a couple of controversial issues are peripheral to the story, this book is firmly proper and polite and easy to recommend to practically everyone.