189. Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop

Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop edited by Otto Penzler (Canada) - (USA)

Pages: 230
Ages: 18+
Finished: Sept. 14, 2010
First Published: Oct.12, 2010
Publisher: Vanguard Press
Genre: mystery, short stories
Rating: 3.5/5

First sentence:

It was hard to run, Dortmunder was discovering, with your pockets full of bronze Roman coins.

Acquired: Received a review copy from the book's publicist.

Reason for Reading: The book was sent to me unsolicited. I read several short story collections last year but haven't been reading many, if any, this year at all and the thought of spending some time with the short story format again was enticing, the book had come at just the right time for me.

This is a collection of the stories that Otto Penzler has had commissioned to be written for his store each year beginning 1993. He then has them bound and gives them away to customers at Christmas. The little booklets have become collectible themselves and Otto decided to publish them all together in one compilation for the final enjoyment of the masses. Each story is written by a different mystery writer though I have to admit I had only heard of 7 of the 17 authors, and read even fewer. The qualifications for each story was that they must happen at Christmas and must contain at least a scene that takes place within the Mysterious Bookshop. Apart from 3 of the 17 stories, the authors chose to make the bookshop and, more often than not, Otto Penzler himself as a major character, the prime components of the story. This was fun at first but became repetetive as the book progressed. Even though the stories were different there was a cookie cutter substance to them when you knew Otto would have some mystery happen in his Bookshop each time, or a clerk would be involved in one. Now that's not to say the stories weren't good. A few of them were excellent, most of them were good and there were only a couple of duds for me. Averaging up the total ratings of each individual story came up with a 3.5/5 for the whole book which feels perfectly spot on about how I feel for the compilation as a whole. Since these stories have only ever been printed in their original special edition format, this would make a unique gift for the mystery fan you're not sure what to buy them.

1. Give Till it Hurts by Donald E. Westlake - a humorous story of a man who robs a numismatic show of a pocketful of ancient coins and while escaping seeks refuge in a poker game he stumbles upon. 3/5

2. Schemes and Variations by George Baxt - it's fabled knowledge in the rare books world that a Dashiell Hammett manuscript entitled "The Thin Woman" has surfaced and someone is determined to have it, as an assassin is killing off the world's best known rare books and manuscripts dealers trying to find it. With its bookish theme this was obviously a fun story, as was the mystery. Otto Penzler is one of the main characters. 3.5/5

3. The Theft of the Rusty Bookmark by Edward D. Hoch - another fun book-ish themed mystery. A professional burglar is hired by a man who has just sold his late brother-in-law's book collection to Otto Penzler. The burglar is to go find the boxes of four hundred books and retrieve a bookmark left inside one of them. 3.5/5

4. Murder for Dummies by Ron Goulart - A two-bit author whose career is going south as his publisher no longer wants to renew his contract for his children's mystery series goes to the dark side when an elderly fan asks him to read her manuscript, and he loves it. A great mystery with all the right elements including a twist and a surprise ending. My favourite so far. 5/5

5. As Dark As Christmas Gets by Lawrence Block - The owner of The Mysterious Bookshop (never mentioned by name, but the real owner is poked fun at) has a Christmas party, wakes the next morning to find an extremely unique Cornell Woolrich manuscript missing. He calls in a friend, a private detective, who works in the same manner as Nero Wolfe and actually believes Wolfe is a real person. The detective quickly whittles the 50 party attendees down to 7 suspects, gathers them in a room and proceeds to unravel the mystery. Loved this one, even though it crossed the line and spoke to the reader; it was done for humour. The sleuthing was classic detective style and had a great solution that perfectly fit the tone of the story. 4/5

6. The Holiday Fairy by Jeremiah Healy - Otto Penzler calls in a P.I. from out of state to question three of his close friends that he has figured out have all been in his private rooms the preceding week on the exact days that three collectible objects have disappeared and been replaced with envelopes containing the book price payment of each. The plot of Otto calling in an investigator to find stolen objects wasn't new to this collection and this story didn't have anything new to offer. The ending was quite different but didn't save it for me. 2/5

7. I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus by Ed McBain - Title pretty much gives everything away but still pleasant story of a kid roaming the bookstore. Upstairs staff assumes mother is downstairs and boy tells downstairs staff mother is upstairs, but boy starts to get creepy when he starts insisting to everyone that Santa is dead. 3/5

8. The Grift of the Magi by S.J. Rozan - Otto tells two friends, separately, that he would like an extremely rare book for Christmas but knows he'll never find one. Silly little story with lots of word play. 2/5

9. My Object All Sublime by Anne Perry - Half an hour before closing a man finagles his way into seeing Otto in his private rooms and his intentions are no less than deadly. Loved this one. Grew creepier and creepier as it went along until a twist ending. My new favourite so far. 5/5

10. Christmas Spirit by Michael Malone - A chief of police from South Carolina accompanies a detective to Otto's Christmas party where the night ends with a body. The chief and a cat solve the crime. An ok story but I did enjoy the narrative voice very much. 3/5

11. The Lesson of the Season by Thomas H. Cook - A clerk has worked Saturdays all by herself in the store for ten years and every Saturday the same man has been coming in buying trashy paperback original action mysteries, with a special interest in one author. A book snob herself she finally asks him why he reads that junk and gets an answer worth far more than she was looking for. Great lead up, with a twist and satisfying end. Another favourite. 5/5

12. Yule Be Sorry by Lisa Michelle Atkinson - The unnamed owner of The Mysterious Bookstore is in dire straights: the phone's been cut, last month's mortgage is due, he's worried about the electricity, etc. He's desperately hoping one of his buyers can come up with a first edition of Hammett's second book as he already has a buyer. The book arrives the day before Christmas but as he is about to hand it over to the buyer he can't find it anywhere. That's only the first twist. Cute story. 3/5

13. The Long Winter's Nap by Rupert Holmes - A new Mysterious Bookstore has opened at another location at it's celebrating its first Christmas so O.P. hires a brass band to play out front. When the tuba player asks to use the washroom, a clerk shows him the way downstairs where they find a dead Santa in the storeroom. This story is much longer than any of the others so far, thus allows for quite a bit of a set-up and detecting as the murder is unraveled just in time, as the police arrive. Straight forward, classic mystery story. 4/5

14. Cold Reading by Charles Ardai - Just a regular day at the bookstore a few days before Christmas when a young woman walks in and starts talking to the clerk, Roger, turns out her grandmother was a highly collectible '50s author who only wrote two books before her untimely death. This woman says her father has just died and going through his stuff she's found a lot of grandma's things including a third book but it's only in manuscript form. Would he come over, she doesn't live far away, and take a look? When he arrives her apartment has been ransacked and she is missing, that is until her kidnapper calls on the phone. Quite a delightful story. You know something's up from the beginning but there's a twist and it's not what you thought it was. Fun. 3.5/5

15. The Killer Christian by Andrew Klavan - A brother and sister in the city for a while now from their more rural beginnings are leading very different lives. Holly, an aspiring actress, who currently has a part as an angel in a play, works part time in "The Mysterious Bookshop" and has been given a low rent apt. above it. Brother Steven however, has got himself mixed up with the criminal world and had Holly bail him out several times. But this time, he's in big trouble because his boss had decided to "off" him and Steven tries to stay alive, just ahead of the assassin. I really enjoyed this one. It had quite a bit of action and the characters were developed enough that I actually liked them and could imagine them outside the confines of the story. Apart from the very first story in the book, this is the only other one *not* to take place entirely in the store and use the owner as a major character. By this point in the book, I found that very refreshing! 4/5

16. The 74th Tale by Jonathan Santlofer - A young man walks into the bookstore near closing time and buys himself a Christmas present. Thinking he's getting more for his money he chooses a book with 73 stories in it. When he gets home and starts reading the stories, from his descriptions, we can tell the book is Poe. Then he comes across a story that inspires him to conduct a real life experiment he has always wanted to try. This is the creepiest story is the book! A good suspenseful tale and one of the best in the book. 5/5

17. What's in a Name by Mary Higgins Clark - Can't really give a summary of this as it slowly unravels until the end but it begins with a woman who is slowly clearing out her Nana's house after her death. For the past 20 years Nana has written mystery novels but none of them were ever accepted and her office is full of manuscripts (never having let anyone read one) , some in envelopes that have been sent and returned. Nana gave instructions to her granddaughter that upon her death, if she had never sold a book, then all her papers were to be thrown away with the promise that nobody would ever read them. This story was more cheesy and like a "Hallmark moment" than a mystery. 2.5/5


  1. I'm disappointed that you didn't like this more. It is a book that I'd pick up in a minute around the holiday season.

  2. You're right. It's not. I actually consider 3.5 as "good" in my ratings, but I don't want to waste my time (being that I already know it's in the 3s) when I could be reading 5s! :) Well, maybe 4s would be more accurate considering my recent record. Do you know what I mean?

  3. Yeah, I know what you mean! 3.5 is "Good" in my ratings too.

    If only we could be assured of only reading 5's, eh? Poor you with your 2.5's this year. But I've had more than one 2 - 2.5 this year too!

    I did *really* like the story by Jonathan Santlofer, though and I'd never heard of him before. He's someone I'm going to add to my authors to try list.

  4. EEK! Nicola!!! I don't need to find new authors. I just looked up Santlofer's books up on Amazon, and I'm really interested in The Murder Notebook - a forensic sketch artist is the main character! If I could get my hands on the audiobook, I'd listen to it soon (I'm intrigued), but I don't believe it's available. So, on the TBR list it goes!


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