Fiction: “A Stillness in Bethlehem” by Jane Haddam

If you were to ask me why I keep reading these novels this year, I couldn’t answer. I mean, looking back on the past two years (wow, it’s almost been two years I’ve been doing this?), my reading has been very scatterbrained, for lack of a better term. Unorganized. That’s probably a better term. But seriously, from humor to mystery to midwestern philosophy to a treatise on writing to a biography of the zero concept and back to humor, I am pretty much all over the map. But lately I’ve been returning to Jane Haddam (and romance, but that’s ending for a while – I can only take too much brain sludge before my brain turns into sludge). I dunno. I think it’s weird.

Anyway. I am not here to discuss why I read certain books, but why you should read this book (or something – I’ve never been very clear on my mission statement).

A Stillness in Bethlehem continues shortly after we left off in the Gregor Demarkian series [Feast of Murder]. Upon his and Bennis’s return to Cavanaugh Street, they found their priest friend, Tibor Kasparian, not doing well. Tibor had heard about the town of Bethlehem, Vermont, which puts on a three-week Celebration of the Nativity every December. Gregor and Bennis decide to bring Tibor to Bethlehem for a week so he can watch the Play, which is a production the likes of which no other small town has ever seen. In fact, due to the large tourism draw of the Celebration, the townspeople never have to pay taxes – everything the town could ever hope for (including a state-of-the-art mobile crime unit) is available to them.

This causes a slight problem for Tish Verek, a “flatlander” who moved to town a few years ago with her husband, Jan-Mark. Not a huge problem, mind you – Tish just likes causing trouble. Along with writing a manuscript about a series of true crime incidents where children killed adults pathalogically, she decides to file a lawsuit putting an injunction (or something) on the Celebration, as it no longer has any separation between Church and State.

And then Tish gets killed in her driveway.

This iteration of the Gregor Demarkian novel is different in that Gregor just happens to be in the right place at the right time. He wasn’t solicited by local authorities to assist – he just kinda showed up, by coincidence. Because Gregor is now a minor celebrity of sorts, the town had reported on his coming for the Celebration, so of course the Sheriff does ask him questions, but it’s not as formalized as it was in Feast of Murder or even A Great Day for the Deadly. He just happens to be there.

The book follows the same structure as the other Demarkian novels, where certain chapters delve into the minds and actions of the townspeople Demarkian interacts with. What I noticed this time reading (and now I’m going to pay close attention to the further Demarkian novels I read where I can’t remember whodunit) is that the murderer is still given those pages, but the murderer never thinks about the murder. At least in this novel, the murderer thinks of other things pertinent to his/her backstory/storyline, but thoughts of the murder or, specifically, who could have done the murder never show.

Here are three quotes, illustrating the fact that Gregor Demarkian isn’t so much a genius detective, but more of an unwilling detective:

Gregor hummed “The First Noel” to himself and packed the legal pad away inside the folds of his newspaper. He didn’t want Bennis to see it and get silly ideas. Bennis was always getting silly ideas. Her silliest and most persistent one was that his life was just like the lives of her favorite fictional detectives — Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe — and if she could just catch him living in it she could share the excitement of it. Gregor didn’t think his life was exciting at all. His feet hurt. [202-203]
 

If he was going to go tramping around the countryside, he ought to have the proper attire to do it in, but he never believed he was going to go tramping around the countryside. It wasn’t the sort of thing he used to do much when he was head of the Behavioral Sciences department for the FBI. It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d ever imagined himself doing much of. If he had to pick one of Bennis’s fictional detectives to be, it would definitely come down to Nero Wolfe, who sat in a chair all day and ate. [207]Stuart had been ready to walk out — into what, or where, he had no idea, but out, away from here, away from the kind of people who could shoot rifles at women sitting in half-filled bleachers and threaten a man for no other reason than that he was mentally retarded. Now Stuart felt as if it all fit into something larger, a western movie with common sense in the white hat and hysteria in the black, and if he just put his mind to it, he could be part of it. It was silly, of course, but that was the way Demarkian made him feel. Stuart had had a sergeant like that in the army.

Sometimes, Stuart had a terrible feeling he was that sort of man himself. [306]

And finally — and I think this is why I have been so into these books again: I’ve heard rumors that, eventually, Gregor and Bennis get together (all together now: whaaaat) — some of that rumor-mongering:

“Don’t worry,” [Gregor] said. “I’m taking Bennis out for dinner on New Year’s Eve. I’ve got that sweater I bought that I showed you, with the reindeer on it. I’m going to give it to her. It’ll soften her up. Maybe I’ll get her to talk.”

“You are taking Bennis to a restaurant on New Year’s Eve?” Tibor looked interested. “Just the two of you? Alone?”

Gregor Demarkian nearly choked. “Now Tibor,” he warned. “Behave yourself.”

“I do not know what you are talking about, Krekor [sic]*. I am a priest. I always behave myself.”

“Tibor–”

“I think this is a very good thing,” Tibor said. “You and Bennis, alone in a restaurant, on New Year’s Eve. If you are intelligent, Krekor, you will pick one with not much light and a great many candles.”

Tibor.” [338-339]

*Many of Gregor’s friends from Cavanaugh Street ‘speak’ with the Armenian inflection. Hence, Krekor for Gregor.

Oh, and before I leave, I should warn that this book may have some trigger issues: one of the characters is physically and sexually abused by her husband (and there are some scenes depicting the abuse, however, good news: she does escape, and brilliantly at that), and the murderer’s root of his/her problems was child sexual abuse.

Grade for A Stillness in Bethlehem: 3 stars

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