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Foul play abounds as Father Christmas sifts through suspects

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Eleven Pipers Piping

By C.C. Benison

Doubleday, 479 pages, $30

BUT you know the past -- it seems to do nothing but intrude on the present, doesn't it?"

So says a character in Winnipeg author C.C. Benison's second Father Christmas mystery, just when vicar Tom Christmas is starting to become flustered by the growing number of suspects in the murder of a local bagpiper.

Set in the tiny English village of Thornford Regis, this delightful novel is filled with rich imagery of the British countryside but infused with a modern flavour.

Tom is a widower still coming to terms with the murder of his beloved wife, Lisbeth, and dealing with questions from his young daughter.

This was ground covered in Benison's 2011 series debut, Twelve Drummers Drumming, which had Tom moving to the quiet town for respite. But soon after he arrived, he found the body of the choirmaster's daughter inside a Taiko drum (hence the first title).

In Eleven Pipers Piping (which can be read independently, since Benison provides several flashbacks to the original), Tom must now provide pastoral care to the owner of the Thorn Court Hotel when her husband is found dead following a celebration of Robbie Burns Day.

When the vicar learns that bagpiper Will Moir was poisoned, the entire town erupts in breathless gossip about other residents' scandalous behaviour.

Tom tries to calm their fears at the same time he is discovering that all is not what it seems in the sleepy hamlet.

Was it the yewberry tarts that did in poor Moir, prepared by the vicar's own housekeeper? The whisky, poured by a disreputable town character at the dinner? Or -- say it couldn't be! -- the haggis?

As Tom, an accidental detective, goes about his duties caring for his flock, he stumbles upon dozens of clues and red herrings. They all seem to point to practically everyone in town as having both motive and opportunity to commit the crime.

Benison (the pen name for journalist and editor Doug Whiteway) is best known for his mystery novels that feature British royalty as crime-solvers. He fills Eleven Pipers Piping with engaging characters, ranging from the mysterious Judith Ingley, a retired nurse who shows up at the hotel just as the murder occurs, to Victor Kaif, the local homeopath whose knowledge of poisons makes him a likely suspect.

Tom discovers the town is rife with secrets; crimes have gone unreported, large insurance policies have been bought, gambling debts have been piling up, and love is in the air.

This last point is troubling to him, as even he is starting to be affected by close encounters with women in the town, most notably an attractive police officer, making him think deeply about marriage and loyalty -- and memories of Lisbeth.

But, as Det. Insp. Bliss of the Yard cautions the vicar as he enters a suspect's home for a visit, "Avoid the tea."

For foul play is still about, and the life of someone else may be hanging by a thread.

Winnipeg author Chris Rutkowski is vice-president of resources and development for the Manitoba Writers' Guild.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J8

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