Vicki Delany’s Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas offers a welcome return to the charmingly festive yet murder-stricken town of Rudolph, New York, where Christmas spirit runs high and malice simmers beneath the surface. The sixth instalment in the Year-Round Christmas Mystery series, it’s a seasonal whodunnit with all the trimmings, including a perplexing murder, perilous relationships and plenty of small-town intrigue.
In the deceptively quaint community of Rudolph – famous as America’s Christmas Town – the holiday season is in full swing and the Rudolph Community Theater Players are feverishly preparing for their annual Christmas extravaganza: a musical rendition of A Christmas Carol. However, the little theatre group is unusually full of big egos, and the previously joyous atmosphere of rehearsals is quickly soured by tensions among the cast and crew.
Despite being fonder of true crime than musical theatre, Merry Wilkinson, owner of Mrs Claus’s Treasures and accomplished amateur sleuth, reluctantly finds herself pulled into the drama due to her mother, retired opera diva Aline Steiner, taking part in this year’s production. What’s more, when a particularly unpopular member of the cast is found dead, Merry becomes entangled in a puzzling murder mystery that threatens to put a dampener on the town’s holiday cheer.
Vicki Delany has a keen eye for the complex relationships and rivalries that underpin small-town life – particularly in the kind of small town that serves as the setting for a cosy murder mystery – deftly capturing the drama and dysfunctional dynamics inherent in the world of community theatre this time round. As Merry is forced to navigate an intricate web of conflicts and motivations among the theatre group, Delany is able to gently skewer many related stereotypes, including the frustrated actor, megalomaniacal backer and stage mother.
One of the strengths of the Year-Round Christmas Mystery series is Delany’s evocative portrayal of the idyllic but enigmatic town of Rudolph, and in Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas, the town again serves as both a setting and a major character. Through vivid descriptions of people and place, as well as an occasionally tongue-in-cheek approach to the festive aspects, she brings the town to life, providing a picturesque backdrop that perfectly balances the yuletide ambiance with the sense of menace that is never too far away in a place with such a high murder rate.
Indeed, from the snow-laden sidewalks to the cheery shops and eateries, Rudolph exudes a palpable sense of warmth and familiarity perfectly reflective of the feelings that typically characterise the Christmas season, but it does not do so unequivocally. For all the community barbeques, theatre fundraisers and Christmas-loving locals, there is plenty of malevolence and intrigue bubbling away beneath Rudolph’s jolly façade, which ensures there are plenty of suspicious shenanigans and red herrings for Merry to investigate.
Another strength of the series lies in the well-crafted and endearing characters that populate Rudolph. Merry Wilkinson, with her unyielding determination and quick wit, is an engaging and relatable protagonist – if only she’d dedicate more time to sleuthing and less to romance – who cleverly navigates the intricacies of the murder investigation. Her father, the affable former mayor of Rudolph, who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, adds a touch of whimsy to the story, while her mother, as a former opera star, adds a dynamic and vibrant energy that is both entertaining and mindboggling.
Alongside the series’ regular cast, Delany introduces a host of new suspects and motives in Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas, meaning that there is much for Merry to understand and overcome as she attempts to track down the killer. As the majority of these newcomers are members of a theatre group in which as much drama happens off stage as on stage, their personalities and behaviours are sometimes a tad over the top, but such diversions from the real world never seem too strange in America’s Christmas Town.
Still, despite the many larger than life characters, Delany tempers the story’s overall sense of holiday magic with her portrayal of the darker undercurrents of human behaviour, showcasing how even those with seemingly picture-perfect lives can fall foul of ambition, jealously and deceit. She skilfully balances the cosy and rather heartwarming elements of the story against the darker themes of Merry’s murder investigation, ensuring that the crime is never overshadowed by the froth.
Moreover, Delany’s adept use of misdirection ensures that the mystery remains gripping throughout, while Merry’s interactions with her peculiar and sometimes stupefying fellow Rudolph residents – particularly her frustratingly oblivious employee Jackie O’Reilly – add plenty of humour and the occasional moment of exasperation to the story. The wide pool of suspects and the continual danger that Merry finds herself facing also lend the story an air of suspense that lasts until the satisfying dénouement.
Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas is an appealing and surprisingly complex cosy mystery that seamlessly blends festive charm with brutal murder. Delany’s engaging storytelling, richly developed characters and evocative worldbuilding make it the perfect Christmas addition to any cosy mystery enthusiast’s reading list.
Crooked Lane Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars