Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Shortest Day: Jane Langton


The Shortest Day is the 11th book in the Homer Kelly series. This story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Homer and Mary Kelly are teaching a class at Harvard University. Mary is participating in the annual Christmas Revels when a young singer in the event dies in an automobile accident. When other deaths follow, Homer resists getting involved, even though he was once a homicide detective. This book centers on the production of the Revels and an activist group seeking housing for the homeless; the author illustrated the story with her own pen and ink drawings.

I have been featuring some books that are set in December around Christmas this month, but this is the first book that is truly seasonal, with the story built around the Christmas season and the Winter Solstice.

From the book, a description of the Christmas Revels at Harvard:
Of course, it wasn't just the festival of Christmas they would be celebrating, it was also the winter solstice. Some of the Revels themes had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.  They were pagan stories, they were magic, they were ancient rites challenging the cold of winter in its darkest time, awakening the growth and greenness of the spring. And some were wassails praising the joys of good brown ale, and some were haunting entreaties to the wild deer in the forest, appeals by the hunters to the hunted to allow themselves to be killed. And always there was the stamping and leaping of the Morris dancers, which had no connection with the Christian nativity at all.

In this mystery, which really doesn't involve much investigation, Homer Kelly takes a back seat to Mary, who notices what is going on and sees the clues. He, on the other hand, doesn't see any evidence of wrongdoing until much later in the story.

This is, in essence, an inverted mystery, because the reader does know early on who is causing the deaths. I mention that because some mystery readers prefer stories where they can guess who the perpetrator is and why.

I read the first three books in the series, in 2007, and have always thought of Homer Kelly and Mary Kelly being on an equal footing in the series. The books I read were published in 1964, 1975, and 1978. Possibly I remember wrongly, because I see that the series is called the Homer Kelly series and in this story, published in 1995, Homer brushes off Mary's concerns every time she brings up her misgivings about the deaths.  I found this irritating and it took me out of the story at times, but it really does not change the fact that this mystery has a lot to offer.  Such as:

  • This is a quirky and humorous mystery in an academic setting. 
  • it is a nice cozy and mildly humorous mystery set at Christmas, with background on the Christmas solstice and accompany celebrations.
  • The line drawings are lovely and add to the story.
  • There are interesting side stories about the homeless and urban poverty, and an astronomer who is photographing the analemma over a year's time and is nearly at the end of this project.

Mysterious Press publishes ebook editions of the entire series, which include the line drawings. They have this to say about Jane Langton:
Winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, Jane Langton (b. 1922) is an acclaimed author of mystery novels and children’s literature. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Langton took degrees in astronomy and art history before she began writing novels, and has set much of her fiction in the tight-knit world of New England academia.

See also an article that appeared in Mystery Scene magazine in the Spring 2012 Issue #124.


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Publisher: Penguin Books, 1996; orig. pub. 1995
Length:  262 pages
Format: mass market paperback
Series:  Homer Kelly #11
Setting:   Boston, Massachusetts
Genre:  Mystery
Source: I purchased this book.


14 comments:

  1. Sounds mildly interesting, and I certainly like the drawings, which are unusual in a mass market mystery, I think. However the story doesn't sound sufficiently compelling to convince me to find a copy.

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    1. I do like the line drawings which complement the story, Rick. But I will admit that I only like reading one of these now and then, as something different. And reviews at Goodreads and Amazon are very mixed.

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  2. This series is an interesting example, I think, of those lesser-known series that can still be engaging and interesting. I'm glad that Mysterious Press and some other publishers are bringing them back, Tracy. Thanks for highlighting this one.

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    1. I had not realized that Langton started publishing these in 1964 and the last was published in 2005, Margot. 18 books over about 40 years.

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  3. You've captured my interest, Tracy. I've found of late I, too, prefer the "inverted mystery" approach, as the "guess whodunit" style often smacks too much of artifice. I like a little humor in my mysteries, too.

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    1. I think this is a good series, Mathew. Not a lot of investigation, but that was fine since I like many other elements.

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  4. Tracy, I don't think I have read an illustrated mystery before, though I'll probably enjoy reading it if I eventually read one.

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    1. Prashant, in an article I read, Langton talks about using the drawings as a help as she works through the plot, sort of like a story board.

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  5. I actually don't like inverted mysteries. But - I have read a number of books from this series over the years, and always enjoyed them. This sounds like one for me for next Christmas season.

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    1. Moira, the first few inverted mysteries I read I really enjoyed, then I read a few that did not work for me. So, for me, I guess it just depends. On the author, on the characters, I guess. This is definitely a good Christmas mystery.

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  6. I love her books, Tracy. I have this one and never gave it a thought for Christmas readingšŸ˜© . Next year! Merry Christmas to you and yours with much love!

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    1. I thought I remembered that you had liked this series, Peggy. Merry Christmas to you and your husband and all of your family.

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  7. Glad you enjoyed it mostly, but I don't feel like I'm missing out on too much.

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