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Posted on Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 7:30 p.m.

Cozy up with these Christmas-themed mysteries, including Margaret Maron's newest, featuring sleuth Deborah Knott

By Robin Agnew

Christmas Mourning
Margaret Maron

Grand Central, $7.99

There are any number of Christmas mysteries, ranging from the sublime to the terrible. A couple of my favorites include Joan Coggin’s Who Killed the Curate?, originally published in 1944. The story follows the utterly charming Lady Loops, who marries an older vicar with whom she falls hopelessly in love at the beginning of the story.

The book is set in 1937, and Lady Loops is perhaps one of the worst choices for a vicar’s wife that it is possible to imagine. Glamorous, flighty and ultimately sweet, Loops never the less works out, one way or another, with lots of gentle, dry British humor, who killed the curate on Christmas Eve. This is the true definition of a cozy mystery as it's never scary, frequently funny, and a wry observation of village life circa 1937.

Another of my favorites is Ngaio Marsh’s delicious Death of a Fool (1957, British title Off with His Head), which deals more with ancient British folk traditions than with more contemporary ones, though it is Christmas, and the dashing Inspector Allyn must discover a villain under the handicap of a recent snowfall. Marsh is a bit less cozy than Coggins, as there are some actually genuinely disturbing (there is a decapitation) and even sad parts of the book, and like all Marsh books, the plot is a thing of wonder.

Another absolutely perfect Christmas mystery was written by Margaret Maron herself, Corpus Christmas (1989), which features her first series character, NYPD detective Sigrid Harald. Sigrid is the absolute opposite of Maron’s present character, Deborah Knott, as she couldn’t be more reserved and uptight, though she is an awesome detective with her relentless attention to detail.

Through the series, Sigrid falls in love with an artist and gradually loosens up. All the books in this series are almost perfect examples of locked room, golden age-style mysteries, and this title, set in an art gallery, is no exception.

Fast forward to the present, and Maron’s newest paperback title is Christmas Mourning, the 16th in her long running, much-beloved Deborah Knott series. Deborah is a judge whose daddy was a bootlegger (on the side), and whose large extended family gives the books much of their texture and interest.

She's recently married with a brand new stepson who she mainly gets along with quite well, though she’s disturbed that he only calls her "she" or "her." Deborah’s many cousins, uncles and aunts all live in a loose compound — think Hyannis Port, N.C. style — and it’s the younger generation that this book focuses on.

The story opens with Deborah and her new husband Dwight, a sheriff’s deputy, at a high school career day when news comes through that a young woman who had been in a recent car accident has just died. There's general consternation among the cheerleading squad (the dead girl was one of their number), and as Deborah drives the grieving (and texting) girls home she begins to get an earful of what the popular and pretty girl was really like, a portrait which Maron slowly colors in throughout the novel.

Many of the leads and connections come from small town networks of friendship and kinship, and the picture that emerges of the dead girl isn’t a flattering one. As both Deborah and Dwight unravel the mystery — it’s apparent the non-drinking girl was given a spiked drink at a party — all kinds of culpability comes out of the woodwork.

Maron has matured and deepened as a writer as she’s worked her way through her original golden age-style puzzle mysteries to a story where, much like Donna Andrew’s charming books, you as a reader could almost enjoy the characters without a messy murder. However, that earlier training holds true, and Maron’s books are always a good mystery along with a good visit with characters who, 16 books in, are old friends.

There’s lots of Christmas stuff woven into the story, and some of the family gatherings are so genuine and sweet they had me tearing up. As Maron skillfully wraps up her story, she leaves the reader with the beginning of another mystery, as well as the promise that Deborah and her husband will be visiting New York City for a delayed honeymoon and a meet up with Deborah’s long lost cousin, Sigrid Harald. I love when everything comes full circle!

For eager readers, Three-Day Town is now available in hardcover. I’m saving it up as a post-Christmas treat.

Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's in downtown Ann Arbor.