In 2008, Elizabeth J. Duncan became the first Canadian writer to win the St. Martins/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel competition. Her book—the highly entertaining The Cold Light of Mourning—is set in Llanelen, Wales near magnificent Conwy Castle constructed at the end of the thirteenth century. Now, this area isn’t overly far from Holyhead, the Welsh port for the ferry that runs to and from Dun Laoghaire (Dun Leary) Ireland, which was scenery for parts of Benjamin Black’s Elegy for April, an audiobook I recently enjoyed. So when I was settling in to read Duncan’s newest book, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales I prepared a double-large cup of tea, kicked back in my recliner, and pretended to be crossing the Irish Sea on a seriously gray Celtic morning.
The next thing I knew I was in picturesque Llaneden just as Canadian ex-pat and amateur sleuth Penny Brannigan finished her breakfast “on a dark gloomy morning in early November.” Penny is a very independent women who makes her own way in the world, and is (Hooray!) in her early fifties. I get so tired of reading about twenty-somethings having all the adventures. What’s wrong with a bit of maturity in our protagonists? Not a thing, I assure you.
I was delighted to spend a few leisurely chapters meeting the residents and enjoying the folksy ways of Llanelen. I moved right past Penny’s problem involving the many-years-old skeletal remains of a woman and an animal found during the renovation of the old building that Penny and her business partner, Victoria, were turning into a very posh and modern spa. Instead I marveled at the building itself.
Beautifully situated on the bank of the River Conwy, a stone’s throw from the town’s historic three-arched bridge, the charcoal grey, three- storey stone building that had been converted into the new Llanelen Spa had seen many incarnations over the past hundred and fifty or so years. It had begun life as a rather fine coaching inn and then, as horses gave way to the automobile, had gradually lost its way until the Second World War when it had seen service as a billet for the Allied soldiers who trained in the nearby hills. When the war ended and once again it no longer had a defined purpose, the building descended into a long period of decline, decaying by the decade.
As she’d just finished rescuing such a deserving building, I did think asking Penny to judge the Christmas decorations contest was putting a bit too much on her shoulders, but all in all, I was having a grand and happy time savoring the social life and pre-Christmas festivities in Llanelen, until we got a glimpse of the true personality of the “wealthy” American who has recently arrived and is charming some of the ladies. See for yourself what he’s really like:
He took out a bill, folded it in half, and leaning forward, passed it to the driver.
“Here’s a twenty, driver,” he said, with a subtle emphasis on the twenty. “Keep the change.” Turning to Mrs. Lloyd, he told her to stay where she was and that he’d get the door for her. As she shifted toward the passenger door, Saunders leaned forward to adjust his coat and, as he did so, wedged the cheap, now-empty wallet between the seat and the side of the vehicle. He opened his door, walked around behind the car, opened Mrs. Lloyd’s door and, offering her his arm, helped her alight.
The driver smiled to himself as he watched this display of old- fashioned gallantry, then drove off. At the next streetlight he slowed and unfolded the ten-pound note Saunders had given him. It barely covered the fare.
“Tosser,” he muttered under his breath.
Okay, can you pick out the victim of murder number one? Maybe so, but not for any of the obvious reasons. And then there is murder number two, oh, and let’s not forget the skeleton in the wall. Penny surely hasn’t.
Penny Brannigan is a woman strong enough to balance all her responsibilities, including her growing romance with Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Davies, and smart enough to hire someone to cook a glorious Christmas dinner for her guests. By Christmas night when Penny is finally snuggling on her couch with her handsome copper, she has seen to it that all of the mysteries are unraveled; all the loose ends neatly tied.
Even in the bleak Welsh winter, with a dead body or two thrown into the mix, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales is the warmest of cozy mysteries, populated by engaging characters, who will have you longing to visit them again and again.
According to Terrie, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. She is editor of the recently released Sisters in Crime New York/TriState chapter anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and blogs at Women of Mystery.