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“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”
– Shirley Temple  
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  Volume No. 14 Issue No. 12 December 2017  

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  “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas”
  By Robin Widmar

   Some people may enjoy reading deep, thought-provoking prose at this time of year, but my literary remedy for holiday stress focuses on lighter fare. Enter David Rosenfelt, author of the Andy Carpenter mysteries and other books. His holiday-themed novel, “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas,” shares its name with previously released children’s books and family films. Unlike those stories, however, this is a civil complaint-turned-murder mystery in which the dogs play supporting roles rather than lead characters.
   
   Martha “Pups” Boyer has saved thousands of dogs by fostering stray and unwanted puppies at her home in Paterson, New Jersey. It is a labor of love that eases the burden on overcrowded shelters, while the puppies and their mothers await forever homes. Pups is a no-nonsense woman described as “cantankerous and difficult” at best. However, a new neighbor, Randy Hennessey, is not a Pups fan.
   
   He becomes a real-life Grinch by filing a complaint against Pups for violating the city’s three-dog limit. Pups and her attorney, Andy Carpenter, feel confident they will prevail in court. After all, the case is about puppies at Christmas time. Who would dare rule against them? Even so, Carpenter remains a little nervous about bringing Pups to court because she “says exactly what’s on her mind, and what’s on her mind isn’t always flattering.”
   
   Then, Hennessey winds up dead, and Pups becomes the prime suspect in his murder.
   
   Pups staunchly proclaims her innocence –- but then, don’t most murder suspects? Carpenter wants to believe his longtime friend. He sees her as a scrappy advocate for homeless dogs, not a killer. The facts of the case do not work in her favor, though. Pups publicly threatened Hennessey after he filed his complaint. She was the person who found his body, and the murder weapon was found hidden in her basement.
   
   If all of that isn’t bad enough, ballistics tests show that the gun used in Hennessey’s murder is the same one used to kill Pups’ husband, Jake, and a local gang member in a drive-by shooting a year and a half earlier. At the time, police thought Jake Boyer was simply an unintentional victim of gang warfare. Now, they are charging Pups with two more murders.
   
   Digging into the case initially leaves Carpenter and his investigative team with more questions than answers. Jake owned substantial land holdings and had flush bank accounts. Was he actually the target of the drive-by shooting? Is Jake’s estranged son, Hank, angling to claim the estate if Pups is convicted? Or is the frugal “Puppy Lady” of Paterson simply a closet serial murderer?
   
   Carpenter’s quest for the truth meanders through the territories of familial dysfunction, marital infidelity, political blackmail, gang activities and plain old greed. The plot behind the murders is interestingly complex, but the mystery resolves neatly with loose ends tied up like a bow on a holiday package.
   
   The title of this book is somewhat deceptive. The 12 dogs (some of which are adorably rendered in Christmas stockings on the cover) are a litter of puppies that Pups took in, and they make a few early appearances before fading into the background. The holiday theme merely serves as a poignant backdrop to darker events. But those minor points can be forgiven in this light and enjoyable read. Rosenfelt’s plotting and efficient writing style move the story along at a pleasant clip. His trademark light humor and dry sarcasm are underscored by an unabashed affection for dogs that many people can relate to.
   
   One serious message clearly comes through: When it comes to giving gifts, dogs (or any animal, for that matter) are not material goods in the same category as electronic gadgets or toys. This point is driven home in a brief scene about a man who wants to adopt a dog as a surprise Christmas present for his son, but only if he can exchange or return it. He is merely looking for a gift and cannot be bothered to know whether his family even wants a dog in the first place.
   
   Considering the number of animals abandoned or surrendered to shelters following holiday gift-giving sprees, the message that dogs are not toys or gadgets is a good message for any time of year.
  
 
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