A Stillness in Bethlehem

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Marketing mindsets must be responsible for the many mystery series themes common to bookshelves. Lilian Jackson Braun has her THE CAT WHO... books; Sue Grafton her letters (A IS FOR ALIBI); Harry Kemelman his days (MONDAY THE RABBI TOOK OFF). Now Jane Haddam is trying to build a series around holiday hijinx.

Unfortunately, authors need more than an angle to write an engaging novel. Of course, this is the seventh in her series—which also features QUOTH THE RAVEN (Halloween), A GREAT DAY FOR THE DEADLY (St. Patrick’s Day), and A FEAST OF MURDER (Thanksgiving)—so there seems to be a commercial reason why she’s continuing.

Here, Haddam has the intrepid ex-FBI agent Gregor Demarkian probing Yuletide murders in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, a quaint New England village that depends on its annual Christmas pageant and Nativity play for tourists—and income. That factor, along with controversy over the separation of church and state (the event occurs on public land), makes the plot nicely timely and timeless.

Local author and civil libertarian Tish Verek is killed, then the elderly Dinah Ketchum, who’d been involved in the celebration,then Episcopalian priest Gemma Bury. Dubbed by the press as “theArmenian-American Hercule Poirot,” the vacationing Demarkian and cohorts Bennis Hannaford (a socialite writer) and Tibor Kasparian (a parish priest) try to unravel the stockingful of suspects, whorange from a wife-beater and journalist to the sheriff and a local minister.

Haddam’s tone is uneven (this is neither a hard-boiled suspense yarn nor a soft-pedaled parlor-room mystery); her plot is cliched, if unpredictable; and her characters seem cut out of some cinema central casting department.

Oddly, that becomes a plus if A STILLNESS IN BETHLEHEM is read solely as escapist entertainment. Then, it’s somewhat enjoyable, not unlike a relaxing evening spent absorbing pop culture on TV.

Still, one wonders what other series themes lurk in publishers’ marketing departments. Ah, perhaps using numbers—with those infinite possibilities (ONE IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER, TEA FOR TWO, THREE’S A CROWD, ad nauseam).