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By Anne Perry

Ballantine Books, 2005 ($16.95)
ISBN: 0-345-48380-4

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

This is the third volume of Perry's Christmas series.An intriguing departure from her two other Victorian series, each volume showcases a relatively minor character from the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries.In this installment the protagonist is Mariah Ellison, Charlotte and Emily's acid-tongued, highly opinionated Grandmama.

Due to circumstances beyond her control, granddaughter Emily and her husband received a last-minute invitation to spend the holidays in the Loire Valley, and Grandmama was not invited. Mariah finds herself cast out of her granddaughter's home and forced to spend Christmas with her late son Edward's widow Caroline.Mariah had lived with Edward and Caroline for twenty years, during which time she held her tongue about her disapproval of her son's wife, but when Edward died, Caroline, instead of settling into decorous widowhood for the remainder of her life like the Queen, remarried.

To add insult to injury, the man was much younger man, Jewish, and, of all things, an ACTOR! Mariah could not remain in such a scandalous household.She could not live with granddaughter Charlotte because she'd had the bad judgment to marry a common policeman.Emily at least had shown the good grace to inherit a comfortable fortune from her first husband, and her second mate, Jack, was acceptable to Grandmama.Now, however, they showed how little they truly cared for her, abandoning her so cruelly in the holiday season.To make matters worse, if that were possible, Caroline and Joshua were spending the holidays in a rental home in the bleak Romney Marshes, a stone's throw from the English Channel.

Mariah arrived at the cottage fully intending to have the worst Christmas of her life, and for the first few days all her expectations were met.The village lacked a social life, the visitors were all dull and boring, the weather was atrocious, and her young hosts were too wrapped up in each other to have time for Grandmama. But just when she thought things couldn't get worse, they did.

A letter came from Bedelia Harcourt, a distant relation of Joshua's who lived a few miles away, asking for a ridiculous favor.Her family was entertaining an Important Person for the holidays, and, out of the blue, her sister Maude had shown up.Maude had spent forty years in the Middle East, and apparently the family expected her to stay there. The letter made it clear that the prodigal sister was not welcome in her family's home. To Mariah's shock, the Fieldings agreed to take Maude into their home.The woman was insufferably hearty and cheerful, her clothes a disaster, her complexion a ruddy brown from decades spent under the Oriental sun.She told endless stories about the exotic east, stories of camel rides and glorious sunsets, people who worshipped gods with the heads of animals, cities with roots in ancient times, and the Fieldings hung on every word!

Soon, though, despite herself, Mariah started listening too, and wondering about the smell of jasmine, and landscapes covered in sand, palm trees swaying, camels lumbering along ancient trails.And she started talking to Maude, finding herself oddly drawn to the woman.

Then Maude had the bad grace to die in her sleep, further disrupting the household.But Mariah's resentmentabout the situation slowly changed into sadness, that this woman, like her unwanted and unloved by her closest kin, should die among virtual strangers.Even though she knew she was a difficult woman, perhaps deserving of her family's dislike, at least they were willing to take her in and care for her.And something about Maude's death niggled at her.While it appeared that Maude simply suffered sudden heart failure, Mariah was not satisfied that it was a natural death, and she made it her mission to find out the truth.

To Emily's astonishment, Mariah offered to go to the Harcourt's home and deliver the news of Maude's death in person.She found reasons to prolong her stay, in order to do some detecting and find justice for the woman she realized she'd come to consider a friend.

If a common man like Thomas Pitt could solve mysteries, she thought, she could too. Using unexpected skills and resources, she proceeded to do just that.How she went about solving the crime revealed a lot about Mariah herself, and the secrets of her past that made her the bitter, unhappy woman she became.This is an excellent character study as well as an intriguing mystery.I highly recommend it.

Would you like to read a review of A CHRISTMAS VISITOR, one of the previous novellas in the Christmas series by Anne Perry? If so, click here.

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