When it comes to the holidays, most of us don't solve any mysteries more complicated than The Case of the Missing Last Piece of Pecan Pie.
But darkness can lurk in the shortest days of the year, especially in the minds of readers who seek a break from all those festive carols and TV specials.
If you're looking to dip into mystery fiction over the next couple of weeks – or buy a book for a fan – check out these two nifty new short-story collections.
"The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries," edited by Otto Penzler
What would Christmas be without delightful moments of togetherness? All those office parties, family dinners, lingering moments under the mistletoe.
But look deeper. Did somebody steal the holiday bonuses? Why aren't Uncle Ted and Aunt Phyllis talking to each other? And hey, how come this fruitcake tastes like bitter almonds?
These are the kinds of questions that have captured mystery writers (and readers) for decades. In "The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries," editor Otto Penzler – who runs The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City – tracks down some of the best holiday tales of murder and menace, greed and graft.
Agatha Christie is here, with stories starring both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. So are Damon Runyon, Sara Paretsky, John D. MacDonald, Rex Stout, Ed McBain and many more, plus batches of amusing stories, Sherlock Holmes-ian tales, puzzlers. Even Robert Louis Stevenson and O. Henry make appearances.
These are American and British stories, many of them dating from decades past, some back to the 19th century, and they often focus on the upper crust (looking at you, Agatha!). But what they lack in diversity, especially of the ethnic kind, they often make up in pure malicious deliciousness.
The cover of this behemoth of a book (it's 672 pages) calls it "the most complete collection of yuletide whodunnits ever assembled." That's a stretch. Many of the stories aren't about identifying a culprit but instead aim to answer questions of why or how, often using Christmas as just a setting.
However they utilize the holiday season, the very best of the bunch offer readers an answer to this query: "How is this story going to end with a fantastic twist?"
"Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense," edited by Sarah Weinman
Home is where the heart is. Well, maybe in some short stories. But not the ones in this new collection. The milk of human kindness is in short supply in these bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms.
What would you expect from an anthology that begins with a stunner of a story by the master of malevolence herself, Patricia Highsmith?
Along with Shirley "The Lottery" Jackson, Highsmith is one of the two top names in "Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense." But the other women writers of these short stories are more obscure.
Sarah Weinman, a mystery short fiction author herself, wants to restore some luster to these authors, who have all passed away except for one woman who's in her 90s. As she explains in the introduction, these writers gained audiences during World War II and beyond as mystery fiction evolved from detective stories to a wider blend of tales of suspense and psychological intrigue.
There are a couple clunkers in this collection. But most of the short stories are vivid, sly, and even witty. And some are dark enough to make a cold winter's night feel positively pale. Shiver away: For a mystery lover, this is good stuff.
Randy Dotinga, a regular Monitor contributor, also interviewed Janet Hutchings, the editor of the venerable Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which turned 70 earlier this year.