Christmas Comes Early With Andrew Klavan’s New ‘Yuletide Mystery’ - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Christmas Comes Early With Andrew Klavan’s New ‘Yuletide Mystery’

Most mystery novels are rather easy to review without spoiling. Basically, you can comment on everything except the last page, and who done it. Just don’t reveal the butler did it and you’re in. But Andrew Klavan’s When Christmas Comes is a different matter. The short book is so cleverly constructed that describing almost any scene — even a little girl’s playful laughter — gives away something of value. There are mysteries within the mystery. And Christmastime isn’t just the backdrop, it’s essential to the denouement. Truly, the only safe criticism would be to appraise its cultural significance.

If the book had been published ten years ago, it would have been a clever little detective story, far better written than most, about a hard-boiled hero trying to solve a small-town mystery while exorcizing some personal demons. But as a fresh work of fiction, it offends progressive literary sensibilities with three insults — a manly, deadly, melancholic yet benevolent protagonist — in a Rockwellian setting — during the most popularly Christian time of the year. It’s not at all political yet politically incorrect, and a lesson in reflexive art.

The idyllic hamlet of Sweet Haven; populated by ex-military men, caring women, and their children; affects the protagonist and the reader like the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present combined. Klavan, being one of the best living American novelists as well as a classicist (he has a book on the Romantic poets coming out next year), knows what the Dickens he’s doing. He makes the town’s insular traditionalism more than a theme, in fact a crucial plot point, full of clues. He also drives three parallel narratives to a thrilling divergence.

The main storyline finds ex-secret agent and current college English professor Cameron Winter aiding his former student-lover Victoria, now the public defender in Sweet Haven, on a traumatic case. Her client, Army Ranger war hero Travis Blake, evidently and inexplicably murdered his beloved schoolteacher girlfriend, Jennifer Dean, and Victoria needs Winter to discover either the reason for the homicide or an alternate possibility. Describing their off-campus restaurant reunion, Klavan early in sets Me Too scolds’ green hair on fire. Victoria Nowak was sitting alone in the corner — waiting for him there as she sometimes used to do back in the old days when they were violating the laws of God and man with their student-teacher affair.

As Winter learns more about the central couple, a second narrative unfolds — the strange love affair between damaged killing machine and single father Blake and Jennifer, the enigmatic, empathic, physically and spiritually beautiful teacher of his young daughter, Lila. That Jennifer seems to have no past starts off as curious but ultimately leads to murder.

By contrast, the third narrative is a haunting Yuletide-first love-ghost story, told in installments by Winter to his psychiatrist. Here, the finest tough guy writer in the business, Klavan, employs an older, richer style in a blend of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales with Dickens’ Great Expectations. Young Cameron — banished by his jet-set parents to spend every Christmas with his nanny’s family (When Nanny would return from wherever she was, mother would breathe an enormous sigh of relief.… She had been terrified she was going to have to figure out how to mother me on her own) — falls madly in love with Nanny’s niece, Charlotte. Her three-year age advantage is at first comforting for Cameron then becomes sheer torture as he awkwardly matures after her.

Two sublime kissing scenes in the different storylines show how counter-feminist artist Klavan can create girl characters more realistic than Katniss Everdeen. The first is Charlotte, who intuitively realizes how pivotal to Cameron her reaction to his premeditated kiss must be. Since it’s the boy’s point of view, the reader shares his suspense as to whether she’ll crush him or not.

It takes Jennifer Dean a little longer to process an overaggressive kiss by the damaged Travis Blake. She initially devastates him by rushing out to her car. But she doesn’t drive away.

She sat there gripping the wheel and looking out the windshield. Her jaw working as the engine ran. Then she stopped the engine. She got out of the car. She came back to him where he stood in the doorway. She took his face in her hands and brought him to her so he could kiss her again, not hard this time, not desperately.… It was the deep, slow kiss he would have given her the first time if he had done what it had been in his heart to do.

These lovely, integral bits of romantic business in no way detract from the book’s success as a hard-boiled thriller. It shows Klavan at the top of his game and that’s the top of the heap. He builds intrigue with expert, economic, Chandleresque precision, sometimes in a single brief paragraph: The moment the door shut, Winter began to search the place. Fifteen minutes, he thought. That wasn’t a lot of time before the man who called himself Charlie Wright showed up and killed him.

Like Philip Marlowe, Cameron Winter is a tough but knightly figure. In the most exciting cramped room fight scene since James Bond took on Red Grant inside a train compartment (From Russia with Love the movie), Winter fends off his formidable physical match. But he can also sense the vulnerability in a pinned, tattooed, social rebel girl.

When Christmas Comes is both a great mystery and fine literature. But after deftly avoiding all spoilers, giving away one may be permissible. The butler didn’t do it.

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