TLDR: Good mystery book. You should buy it. Has lessons about the importance of Christmas, but if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it!
How I Approach Fiction
If I read a fiction book, I need to believe there is a lesson the author wants to teach me with his story. A story for story’s sake, in my opinion, is a comic book without pictures. There is no short supply of fictional stories like this. When I pick one up, I often find their character development forced and difficult to track. I always feel like I’m in an argument with the author for the first 100 pages of the book:
I say, “Why did this person kill that person?” to which the Author responds, “because it moves the plot forward!”
“But what’s the point of the plot?”
“To create a murder mystery!”
“Why should I care about solving the murder mystery?”
“Because that’s the fun of it!”
At this point, I usually put the book back on the shelf. I admit, I have probably missed out on my fair share of exceptional literary adventures because of this approach, but at the same time, I have a wife and kids. I consider myself a philosopher in training so when I read a fictional work, I want to make sure it’s teaching me something that I can use to teach others the treasures of human thought; for me, it can’t just be a good time. It has to have purpose; it has to have a lesson; it has to be a parable.
A Yuletide Parable
The actual title of Andrew Klavan’s novel is When Christmas Comes (A Yuletide Mystery). It’s the story of two murders; one a mystery, the other a parable. The first murder is about Jennifer Dean and her murderer Travis Blake. The second murder is more abstract. It’s the murder of the Christmas Spirit. Both murders are investigated through the skills, associates, and memories of our protagonist, Cameron Winter. For Cameron Winter, the murder of Jennifer Dean is one that’s expected by the reader to be solved. But the murder of Christmas is a tragedy that has already happened. The murder of Jennifer Dean in a Christmas-card town is forcing Cameron to relive his past and explore its parallels with a murder in the present. The inside dust jacket flap on my copy confirms this interpretation: “Enter Cameron Winter, a lonely English professor haunted by the ghosts of his own Christmases past…Winter finds that the Sweet Haven murder echoes a horrific yuletide memory from his youth, and he knows that something darker than a simple domestic dispute is at its root.”
The death of Christmas, I consider the “second murder” of the book, as well as the more compelling of the two plots. In it the reader is exposed to, in no certain terms, the spiritual war for Christmas and one of the casualties of this war is Cameron Winter. There are others mentioned in the book who suffer from this battle for Christmas, but to avoid spoilers we will stay focused on Cameron.
The Sins of the Past and the Value of Tradition
As Cameron solves the murder of Jennifer Dean, which has a very satisfying conclusion, we learn more of his past. This occurs through therapy sessions that Klavan navigates brilliantly. Anyone who has been in a therapy session with a skilled counselor will recognize the authenticity and humanity in the counselor and the patient; therapy is a dance not a science, and it’s clear that Klavan has been a patient in this dance. I presume that there is a bit of his own experience in the counseling chamber coming through in Winter’s sessions with counselor Margret Whitaker – something Klavan has been open about on his podcast. This makes these sessions believable and authentic; it also demonstrates there are rational therapists out there in the world of quacks, and reading a healthy dialog between a healthy therapist and an admirable hero was therapeutic in and of itself.
During these sessions we see tragedy used as a tool. We discover the importance of family through the loss of family, family traditions through their ephemeral nature, innocence through its corruption, and Christmas through its death. This is the lesson I think that Klavan aims to teach the reader in this book: The sins of the past are real, but they should not destroy or devalue the traditions we practice in the present.
Klavan presents the reader, not with a MAGA country or a Marxist Utopia, but with the country in which we were raised; a country where our memories are still trying to hold on. A country where Christmas was on every boy’s and girl’s face when the season came through. A country where we prayed and hoped for a “white Christmas” so we could all experience the glow of the lights and the smells of moms’ and grandmas’ cooking in the kitchen in contrast to the bitter cold and warm rosy cheeks. Cameron Winter lost these. The reader is left with a question at the end of the book: are we going to lose them too, or are we going to resurrect them for ourselves, our community, and our children? I for one, plan to have some pretty kick-ass Christmas celebrations this year, and hope you will too!
Thanks for reading! Please support writers like Andrew Klavan by purchasing a copy of When Christmas Comes,* click the following link. Also don’t forget to check out the sequel A Strange Habit of Mind*.
*Solomon’s Corner is an Amazon Associate. By purchasing from this link, you pay the same great Amazon price while helping authors you love and your favorite thinkers at Solomon’s Corner!
Thanks for the book review!