The Snow White
It's all very normal there in Dorset CT with a merry Christmas party in honor of Rut Peck. Who, at age eighty-two, seems still to have a bit of the rut in him.
Dorset is small, historical, friendly, and filled with normal people, who, at Christmas, drink eggnog and sing along with Nat King Cole and his chestnuts roasting on an open fire and folks dressed up like Eskimos.
There is lots of small-town gossip at the party: about the new "life coach" teacher (what exactly does a life coach do?), gossip about who is sleeping with whom, and, soon enough, after the party is done and over with, we get to start discovering bodies here and there: a drug overdose in the big house on the island, an apparent suicide on a nearby highway turnoff, two more bodies left to cool it in the snow on a nearby beach.
As you must know by now, the facts are unimportant in this or any other crime novel, what we used to call "whodunits." It's all in how the author lets it unroll, how the bodies get found, who are the suspects (everyone) --- and who has the sharpest tongue.
From earliest days of mystery history (Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler) to now, dialogue is the key. It has to be spicy, sometimes sketchy, always sharp. In Christmas Cookie, when FBI agent Grisky comes to town to meet with the law-enforcement people, he introduces himself to the investigator, tall, black Connecticut Highway Patrol officer, Desiree Mitry: "'Hey there, girlfriend,' he exclaimed, grinning at her wolfishly. 'Sure never thought I'd find myself back in your sleepy little hamlet again.'
"'It's not sleepy and I'm still not your girlfriend,' Des said. She turns to a fellow officer, introduces her:
"You remember Yolie Snipes of the Major Crime Squad, don't you?"
"You kidding me? How could I forget a sweet-looking sister like Miss Yo-lan-da Snipes. How goes it, Sarge?"
"It's lieutenant now," Yolie informed him between gritted teeth.
"Moving on up, hunh? Good for you. And, whoa, look who they gave you for a sergeant --- It's Snooki. Are we on MTV right now? Seriously, am I or am I not standing in the presence of Miss ... Nicole ... Polizzi?"
"Actually, my name's Toni Tedon," the third officer responds.
These characters all fit; some actually come to life. No-nonsense Des and her film critic lover, Mitch Berger (who almost gets himself killed); Josie the life-coach lady (who does some very strange things to get people out of their self-imposed dark places); Hank, who does himself in (possibly, possibly not); his house mate, postmistress Paulette Zander (she drinks too much bad Chablis.) And son Casey, classic pimply pissed-off nerd, who vents a fine sullen line to all who will listen.
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I got rather fond of this one early on: The Snow White Christmas Cookie offers a wonderful way to waste a chilly afternoon. This is small town Connecticut, and we get to become at one with these eccentric small-town characters. But this is the twenty-first century, and many of them are not necessarily roasting chestnuts before the open fire and toasting each other with cups of eggnog. They are also engaged in drunken fights, lurid gossip, and (gasp) someone is stealing old folk's mail-order meds from the street-side mail-boxes.
Meanwhile, Handler offers up some arcane facts: he lists background music in obscure movies from seventy years ago, lets us know how police labs work, and what a body that's been basted in carbon monoxide for several hours looks like. And how some Connecticut Highway Patrol ladies --- when they have to --- know how to extract key information from one of the local toughs (they call him "Pinhead") who they happen to find naked in bed in a local motel with a local hussy. With a shiv placed uncomfortably close to a certain prized and tender part of his body, Des persuades him to share key information with her. About how a couple of locals got left out on a nearby beach; how one of them survived (barely); the other no.
It turns out to be a sharp and pointed (and fun) lesson in modern law enforcement techniques.--- Lolita Lark