A Christmas Return
This compact little gem, Perry’s fifteenth Christmas novella, demonstrates her proficiency in writing Victorian-set mysteries. The protagonist is Mariah Ellison, grandmother of Charlotte Pitt from another of Perry’s series. One day in mid-December, Mariah receives an unusually heavy Christmas pudding at her London residence. Cutting into it, she discovers an ornamental cannonball—a gift that signals events from her past. The sender is Peter Wesley, grandson of her estranged friend Rowena, and he desperately needs Mariah’s help.
Twenty years earlier, in the village of Haslemere in Surrey, Rowena’s lawyer husband, Cullen, had suddenly refused to continue defending his client. Dr. Owen Durward had been accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl, and nobody knew the reasons behind Cullen’s change of heart. Then that same night, Cullen himself was killed, and Durward was subsequently acquitted. Now Durward has returned to Haslemere again, wanting to dispel any lingering sentiments about his guilt. This dredges up immense pain for the Wesleys, since he’s spreading rumors that Rowena was the cause of his past troubles. Rowena isn’t the fighting sort, so Mariah and Peter decide to take action.
A plain woman in her eighties, Mariah has a reputation of being sharp-tongued and tetchy. In one of many skillful unveilings of human nature’s many facets, the story delves into the origins of her bitterness—and the courage she must exhibit to overcome it. The atmosphere of close-knit village life in the 1890s feels pitch-perfect, from the homeliness of residents’ holiday decor to the gossip that spreads like a dreadful stain. The characterization is superb, and the work’s short length is perfect for the material. The spirit of the Christmas season is cleverly evoked through the underlying theme that it’s never too late for reconciliations and second chances.