Donna Andrews comes back strong with How the Finch Stole Christmas!, the 22nd book in Andrews’s Meg Langslow series. In the previous Christmas books in this series, we have seen Michael, Meg’s theater professor husband, perform a dramatic recitation of A Christmas Carol to raise money for the local book bank. This year, he has expanded the performance into a complete cast production that will raise money for many of the programs run by the city of Caerphilly, VA throughout the year. To create an even bigger draw than having Michael star as Scrooge, the city has hired a former star who hasn’t had a successful acting job in ages due to his alcoholism. Michael soon gets really upset at the town because they let Haver, the actor, insert language into his contract that makes it virtually impossible to fire Haver, despite the fact that he misses rehearsals, hasn’t learned his lines, and shows up to what rehearsals he does deem worthy of attending quite drunk.
With Caerphilly’s being such a small rural community where half the population is related to the Shiffley family, when Mayor Randall Shiffley orders that no one in the town allow Haver access to alcohol, everyone complies. Or almost everyone. Even more, the manager of the Caerphilly Inn goes through Haver’s things and removes any alcohol the actor has gotten his hands on. But where has Haver been getting his alcohol?
Thus, in the hopes of locating Haver’s “bootlegger,” Meg tails after him to an almost-hidden house in the outskirts of town, where she sees him get what looks like a case of wine and not just a bottle. After waiting for Haver to get safely away, Meg prepares to return to town when she hears a growling. Concerned that she has just heard a tiger, Meg creeps up to the house, where she is alarmed to see an emaciated tiger, along with a lot of finches and litters of golden retriever puppies with their mothers in what obviously is a puppy mill. To top things off, a senior woman sits in a rocking chair in the next room, surrounded by an uncountable number of cats.
Taking quick pictures of the situation with her phone, Meg hurries to town, where she is the executive assistant to Mayor Shiffley, to a meeting with various locals who have a vested interest in the situation. Since the case involves a tiger and finches, it interests Meg’s grandfather, the famous zoologist Dr. Blake, the television star who owns the Caerphilly Zoo and has been helping Fish and Game with an operation to break up a ring smuggling valuable finches into the country. Since it involves a puppy mill and cats, it interests Clarence, the leather- wearing biker veterinarian for the area. And since it involves potential elder abuse, it interests Meg’s doctor father, who likes to poke his nose into everything and has gotten himself appointed coroner, so he can snoop officially. The group make plans to start their raid of the house at dawn the next day. At this raid, Meg discovers a boot in the snow. Worse, the boot is attached to a foot, that of the renter of the property, the son-in-law of the old lady in the rocking chair.
This situation leads to all sorts of excitement and drama as they investigate the murder, deal with a missing Haver, and try to take find placement in foster homes of a whole lot of puppies and cats, all while trying to get the performance of A Christmas Carol ready for its big debut. Meg’s twin sons, Josh and Jamie, have grown up a couple years from the previous book, Gone Gull, to become 10 years old, and both have roles in the play, Josh as young Scrooge and Jamie as Tiny Tim. Andrews creates such a wild situation with so many disparate parts that fit together so well in a manner that only Andrews can do. The book drives along with a mysterious appearance and then disappearance of a strange gun, a Baltic manager of the Caerphilly Inn who talks in the language of spies, and the suspicion that their Scrooge may really be a murderer. The book is very humorous and kept me laughing at the same time as I enjoyed its clever mystery. The only other author I’ve encountered who can write humorous mystery as effectively as Donna Andrews is Jana Deleon.
As in all of the books in this series, the title How the Finch Stole Christmas! uses a pun with a breed of birds in the title. What I especially appreciate is the way Andrews doesn’t just use the bird in the pun but rather incorporates the birds into her plots. In this book, the finches provide plenty of opportunities for action to take place.
Another of Andrews’s strengths comes up in her delightful characters. Most are highly quirky and crazy, yet Andrews paints them so realistically that we still expect to go to Caerphilly and meet them in person. The characters do not seem ridiculous at all despite the fact that they should. They do so much to make us the readers laugh out loud. My favorite character is Meg’s father, Dr. Langslow, who is so well-meaning and loveable despite his love of gore and mystery and no social graces at all. But his wife more than makes up for them in always being fashionable and certain of the best etiquette.
Bernadette Dunne does a terrific job of performing the audio version of this book. Her voice sounds just as if she is smiling as she reads the book to us. In fact, I think her narration helps to create our willingness to accept the ridiculous, as I discussed earlier in this review. By not laughing herself, Dunne paves the way to enable us to laugh.
I really enjoyed How the Finch Stole Christmas! and find it one of Andrews’s stronger books. She has written three prior books set at Christmas (Six Geese Aslaying,Duck the Halls, and The Nightingale before Christmas), and this setting seems to suit Meg Langslow well because the Christmas books are especially fun. I definitely recommend this book, especially when you need a smile in your life, and give it five stars!
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