Crime Corner

Professor Jerry’s gift picks for serious and not-so-serious mystery folk

The crime novel Splinter by Paul McHugh

God Jul, Merry Christmas, and happy holidays! From Bergen to Baltimore and from Oslo to Oshkosh—I hope your Yule season is the very best.

Here are a few suggestions that should make gift-giving for mystery and thriller fans across the world even more fun. All the items I am featuring are available to purchase at major online retailers. Do some searching and see what you find!

A GREAT READ

Not just for dad or hubby but for anybody of any gender in your clan who loves the sea, I would strongly suggest the novel Splinter by Paul McHugh.

Set in 1940, just as Quisling was waving a white flag at Hitler and Nazi troops were launching their onslaught on Norway, we follow young Norwegian Kristian Thorsen, who, at 17 years of age, takes on a spy mission to deliver information to the British about a radio-beam system Germany plans to employ against Allied ships.

He hates the Nazis (they killed his father), but he is also a little more than smitten with Helene Berg who, even at the tender age of 19, is in this plot up to her lovely neck (she stole the secrets) and is just as determined as Kristian is that he make it through his perilous journey to deliver the documents.

What ensues is a tremendously exciting read that will put us oldsters in mind of the novels of Hammond Innes and Donald MacKenzie, properly called “thrillers” because of their high-octane plots and their protagonists who are not professionals but who possess skill sets—as does Kristian—that make them great antiheroes.

Any reader of this novel is going to want to know more about Helene—a LOT more—and her full story (she’s an orphan) should definitely produce a riveting sequel.

There are a couple of backup characters like the agent runner Rolf who also deserve more page time.

McHugh writes the kind of dialogue that makes you want to spend more time with his people, but this writer has another ace in the hole as well: this book is—dare I write “awash”??—in the kind of detail that lets readers know that they are under the spell of a writer who knows his technical stuff.

There is plenty of action in Splinter, and all of it is grounded in McHugh, obvious knowledge of the turning of the tides and the thrust of the mighty ocean itself: “The most terrifying moment of Kristian’s voyage came as a big wave went under him and he slid back down into an abysmal trough….It seemed certain the bow would plunge into the black water and the stern be tossed over his head by the curl at the top of the wave, making him cartwheel to his doom.”

This knowledge extends to the book’s sense of place as well: Here is Helene walking through Oslo, “Just beyond the main entrance to the Grand stood glass-paneled doors to the street-level cafe, the Victorian-era hangout of the Kristiania Bohemians, a salon where Henrik Ibsen took his daily lunch or dinner, and where Edvard Munch had painted him taking it.”

McHugh is a former journalist with several degrees from the “University of Life.” He headed up a national kayak surf team and ran the length of the Grand Canyon, among his other exploits. But wow, can this guy write!

Because of the lead characters’ relative youth, some may confuse this with a young adult read—but it’s not. Even with the expanded subject matter and language that young adult fiction now embraces, Splinter has a couple of graphic sex scenes between Kristian and Greta (another compelling character) that channel Mickey Spillane more than any road the Hardy Boys ever travel. But they also are in the service of the plot and far from gratuitous.

OTHER MYSTERIOUS GIFT FINDS

Meanwhile there are plenty of other gifts for mystery lovers out there, one of which at least will capture the fancy of someone on your list.

The Horror Cutting Board by Ambesonne

There’s that friend of yours—you know the one—who probably cannot live another day without a Horror Cutting Board. What a way to impress your friends—just wait until they find you slicing cucumbers on a board that looks like it has already been the scene of a triple homicide.

And then there is brand-new for Christmas Golden Girls Clue Edition, in which you get to join in with everybody’s favorite Golden agers Blanche, Dorothy, Sophia, and Rose, as they solve eternal mysteries involving Colonel Mustard (can’t trust him) and Miss Scarlett (sure can’t trust her)—and those other icons that have been tweaking board players’ ratiocination antennae for some 70 years now.

The Golden Girls edition of the board game Clue

And, of course, the very best way for mystery folk to identify themselves at the supermarket is to shop with your very own Nancy Mysteries Books Tote Bag—Get a Clue. That familiar silhouette—now with us for a century—lets your fellow shoppers know that you mean business: who put those olives in the peanut butter section and why does this cart only have three working wheels? You know the mysteries I mean.

Christmastime always makes me think of Bergen, Norway, where I spent my Christmas of 2017. My wife, Lucrecia, was back in the United States attending to some matters, so I occupied my holidays with singing in the Christ Church Choir—and what a wonderful experience that was. It didn’t snow, but it did rain and rain, and on Christmas Eve. Ellen and Gunnar Staalesen were kind enough to make me part of their family for that evening. What a delightful time that was, all topped off by a rather wild Christmas cab ride!

The Nancy Mysteries Book Tote Bag

The festive streets during the holidays; the Christmas market downtown, the sense of hope and camaraderie during difficult times for the world, that was what I found in Bergen that magical Christmas.

In 2019, I returned to Bergen at Christmas, this time with 10 students from Purdue University. The joy of bringing my Bergen holiday experience to others turned out to be a true sharing experience—one that will always elicit a God Jul! from me—happy holidays!

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.