Every year for 19 years, Carolyn Haines of Semmes, Alabama, has published a “Bones” book one might give as a Christmas present. This year the novel, “A Gift of Bones,” is, in fact, a Christmas book.
With only a few days until Dec. 25, Sarah Booth is decorating her home, Dahlia House, in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta and expecting a visit from her beau, Sheriff Coleman Peters.
Her in-house ghost, Jitty, has assumed the form of Tchaikovsky’s "The Nutcracker" and is dancing with great skill from room to room. Her friend Tammy Odom, now Madame Tomika, the local psychic, comes in worried over a dream she has had involving a missing baby.
Then the door flies open and Cece Dee Falcon, who use to be Cecil Falcon, enters holding a typewritten note she has received: “We have your cousin Eve. She is due to give birth Christmas Eve. We’ll exchange her, unharmed, for $130,000. Do not tell the law or she will die.”
The three women, determined to save Eve, begin to plan and we learn some backstory. Eve was raised by parents Will and Carla Falcon, who were mean, especially her mother, who never loved her. Eve ran away; they will not help.
Sarah Booth, her detective partner Tinkie Richmond and all the others pitch in to raise the $130,000, speculating all the while on what an odd and specific sum this is. They do not tell Sheriff Peters, which makes Sarah Booth feel guilty and puts a kind of tension in the novel.
As they investigate, the clues pile up. Visiting the Falcons’ farm, they learn how truly rotten Eve’s parents are. Carla calls her daughter “a little slut with the morals of a cat in heat …” Will, the daddy, remains silent. Tinkie is so angry she tries to puncture the Falcons’ car tires with her nail file.
Next, they visit the bank in Cleveland, Mississippi, where Eve worked successfully as a loan officer.
She has been promoted several times. Is she sleeping with Freddy Teddy Belvue, the bank president? Is Freddy Teddy the father of Eve’s unborn child? They have to track him down on the golf course where, it seems, he spends most of his time. Tinkie takes such a dislike to Freddy Teddy she also attacks the tires on his Jaguar with her nail file.
Their sleuthing takes them to a fish camp on the Tallahatchie River where they find a lot of blood and then learn that another woman, with a baby, has disappeared.
Jitty appears in the woods outside Odell’s Roadhouse, dancing, now, as Uncle Drosselmeyer from "The Nutcracker," complete with music and lights. (I had forgotten she could travel outside Dahlia House.)
The detectives learn that the Falcon family relationships are even more complicated that they thought, with adulteries, out-of-wedlock children, adoptions and kinships where nobody knew they existed.
This novel, perhaps because it is explicitly a Christmas novel, is cozier, a little slower, with less violence than most. Sarah Booth gets conked on the head once and tied up, but not seriously hurt.
Likewise, it is unreasonable to imagine a Christmas novel ending with two dead babies.
All these missing and possibly medically distressed babies upset Tinkie, who desperately wants a child of her own, as does Sarah Booth.
Teasingly, the story ends with the words: “magic, especially at Christmastime, was real. And miracles do happen.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.