People have certain expectations about the genres they favor and mystery fans expect stories driven by a puzzle. As interesting or well-developed as some of the characters in these stories are, they still exist to serve the central plot and very few of them are driven by ideals. Holiday stories, on the other hand, focus much more on character and these usually have an underlying moral code. That’s what makes Sue Ann Jaffarian’s The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary such an unexpected delight. She balances the requirements of both genres and then blends them to create a mystery with a heart.
Like Charles Dickens, Jaffarian has a keen social conscience for the downtrodden in our society. Dickens noticed the growth of the Industrial Age also exploited the least protected in Victorian Society – the poor and children, in particular. Jaffarian’s story takes us to Skid Row in Los Angeles and the dispossessed of our own era: the indigent, the addicts, the emotionally troubled, and all too often, the military veterans whose return to civilian life is hijacked by untreated traumas. Because these people don’t fit in with society’s norms and because they tend to distrust the police, they are easy targets for criminal exploitation. But therein hangs the mystery.
One of the homeless men living on the Row insists he’s being harassed by a streetwalker known as Mistletoe Mary. Actually, the man says he’s being pestered by her ghost. While most people assume the man’s complaints stem from the onset of dementia or the last stage of alcoholism, detective Jeremiah Jones has qualifications to determine the truth. First, as a one of the few who successfully left Skid Row, he doesn’t judge the residents there by the hard times they’ve fallen on. And Jeremiah Jones knows a thing or two about ghosts.
The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary is an installment in Jaffarian’s cozy mystery series featuring Granny Apples, an endearing and outspoken remnant from California’s early days who loves modern slang and being an amateur sleuth. At first, Jeremiah needs Granny’s help to learn about Mary and how the most vulnerable people on the Row are being manipulated by others. When the bullets start to fly, he’ll need her help to avoid becoming a ghost himself!
Like her main characters, Jaffarian combines an understanding heart with practical sense and good humor and she keeps the puzzle in this story on track. Nevertheless, the greatest asset in this novella is her depiction of the street people as characters. The poor and homeless are not the despised debris of humanity here, nor are they all innocent martyrs to the Tyranny of Capitalism. They’re people, some good, some not so good, but all individuals with their own stories, sorrows and hopes. Jaffarian and her detectives never get so involved in the search for truth that they forget their objective is people.
As I said, this is a book that defies expectations and there are times you can almost forget it’s a holiday story. The setting may be in December but there’s not an dreidel or a reindeer to be seen. There’s murder and crime instead of presents and ivy and even Granny Apples can’t make the bad guys turn good. But along with the bad stuff, there’s love and there’s hope and a memory of family, the essence of December’s celebrations. So celebrate with a mystery this December. A mystery with a heart.