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The Merchant of Menace: A Jane Jeffry Mystery    by Jill Churchill order for
Merchant of Menace
by Jill Churchill
Order:  USA  Can
Twilight, 1999
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by Theresa Ichino

Murder at Christmas time should be unthinkable, but in fact Christmas mysteries are popular in the genre. Jill Churchill's charming series stars Jane Jeffry, a stay-at-home widowed mom whose snooping inevitably leads her into investigations of murder. In this festive offering, Jane is nearly overwhelmed by the demands of the season. In addition to decorating, cooking, and preparing to celebrate with her three teenage children, she has been trapped into hosting two large-scale Christmas parties, one for the neighbourhood carollers and one for a Christmas cookie exchange. She is also dreading the first visit of her police detective boy-friend's mother (as if one disapproving mother-in-law isn't enough), whom she is meeting for the first time.

Jane's generous heart and interest in others (or 'snooping' as Detective Mel VanDyne disparagingly terms it) embroil her in the affairs of her neighbours, including too-well-behaved 'Pet', her youngest son's classmate, and the raucous newcomers who have moved in next door and are making themselves unpopular with their antics. Worst of all, muck-raking reporter Lance King has decided that a neighbourhood carolling party is worth his attention; and despite Jane's best efforts, succeeds in attending (scaring almost everyone into their best behaviour and seriously putting a crimp in the festivities). Although he has the grace to leave early, his departure creates as much dismay as his presence did, since his dead body is found draped across one of the life-sized plastic reindeer in the new neighbours' garish display.

Watching Jane cope with the demands of ordinary life while following the trail of King's killer makes for a pleasant interlude. Churchill's reputation for an entertaining and satisfying read is well founded. This cozy mystery boasts well-rounded and interesting characters who enliven the mystery and keep the reader engrossed. Jane is intelligent, lively, and fun (I did think her divination of King's password rather too swift, but then I couldn't have done it). Her family and friends are people you would like to meet (with the possible exception of her mother-in-law Thelma and VanDyne's mother Addie); her best friend Shelley is a delight, outspoken and formidable in her competence. In short, both are great role-models.

The prolific Churchill has several books to her credit, all with clever titles and featuring the engaging Jane Jeffry. Merchant of Menace would be a welcome stocking stuffer for the mystery reader on your list.

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