In the spirit of the season, up for consideration today is A Stillness in Bethlehem by Orania Papazoglou writing as Jane Haddam (Bantam, 1992). This is the seventh book in the Gregor Demarkian contemporary mystery series. Demarkian is a retired FBI agent, one who established and led the agency’s profiling department. In his retirement he began consulting with police departments on a volunteer basis but has no official standing or credentials. He has however a significant reputation as an investigator; the references to him in the more sensational news outlets as “the Armenian Hercule Poirot” cause him much angst.
After a high-profile case Demarkian comes home to Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia to find his friend Father Tibor Kasparian dangerously exhausted from his work on behalf of Armenian refugees. Their mutual friend Bennis Hannaford arranges for the three of them to travel to Bethlehem, Vermont, to see the town’s long-running Nativity play and to give Tibor a much-needed break. The tiny rural town has found a way to generate revenue and to lift itself out of genteel poverty, similar to the college students in Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod, who created a profitable Yule celebration. The Christmas pageant is a tourist destination and produces most of the income in Bethlehem, so when Tisha Verek, a recent transplant to the area, decides to file a civil liberties lawsuit against the town to stop the play, nearly everyone is upset. Who was upset enough to shoot her in front of her house, however, is not clear, and the State police wrote the death off as a hunting accident. The fact that a second town resident was killed in much the same manner about the same time and not far away did not rouse the State police’s curiosity, who labelled it another hunting accident.
The town police chief was not so confident and, when he discovers Gregor Demarkian in his village, he begs Demarkian to review the evidence. When a third victim is claimed during the first night of the pageant under Demarkian’s nose, he feels he has no choice but to find and stop the culprit.
In a lifetime of reading mysteries, the Demarkian series is among my greatest favorites. The plots are often downright devious (see Blood in the Water, for instance), and the people on the pages are powerfully developed and finely nuanced. Father Tibor Kasparian is quite possibly the fictional character I would most like to meet; his apartment stacked high with books of all kinds on every surface inspires equal parts hilarity and envy every time I read about it. The structure of the stories is intriguing: Characters are sketched in a prologue to set the stage for the murders, there’s always more than one, and then their back story unfolds as the book progresses. My only quibble with the series is Demarkian’s astonishing obtuseness in his dealings with Bennis Hannaford, a successful writer of fantasy sagas whom he meets on his first case. Nonetheless, these books are simply not to be missed by any mystery reader, and this title is a fine place to start reading them.
· Hardcover: 289 pages
· Publisher: Bantam (November 1, 1992)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 0553090240
· ISBN-13: 978-0553090246
Aubrey Hamilton ©2018
Aubrey Hamilton is a former librarian who works on Federal It projects by day and reads mysteries at night.