I love Christmas. I write this from my apartment where my husband and I have already made sure our Christmas tree is sparkling, tinsel is resounding, and poinsettias are colouring corners of our home. We are in celebration mode!
There’s always talk of “Christmas spirit”. I’ve come to realize that one of the key reasons why a “Christmas spirit” occurs is because of the many art forms and senses we attach to the holiday. From smelling a cranberry candle and instantly thinking of the holiday, to hearing I Heard the Bells and being transformed into a Christmas memory…the music, movies, books, and smells of Christmas are a huge part of what makes the holiday so delightful.
This is how we feel “Christmas spirit”, even though no movie, book, or person has ever really been able to capture what that term really means. And herein lies one of many the reasons why I loved reading A Singular and Whimsical Problem – the new novella by Rachel McMillan.
I had the privilege of reading this book pre-publication and at the time found it hard to put down because of the underlying intrigue. The book is premised on the lives of two female detectives in early 20th century Toronto – so early 20th century that these women must disguise themselves as men to be in this occupation.
I was especially interested in the storyline of immigrant life in Toronto which McMillan interwove with this tale of women sleuths:
We turned into a funnel of an alley and entered St. John’s Ward, Toronto’s notorious slum. Immigrants from all four corners of the earth, having recently gathered their merger belongings from the deck of a ship, had settled in the ramshackle tenements. The buildings were falling into each other like mismatched teeth in an over-wide mouth (p.15).
In true Sherlockian form, these women display to the reader their skills, personality, and wits, to undertake even the most difficult of mysteries (think missing cat turned sexual assault case).
The second time I read McMillan’s book, the mystery was, of course, mainly vanished. I knew the plot line. I knew the outcome.
But I still loved reading it. And I realized in part it was because the author, through her careful diction and colourful descriptions, was able to transport me back to early 19th century Toronto at Christmas:
The days were dawning early and cutting off shorter as November sank into December. Night and a swift sparkle of snow fell outside the broad window of our flat (p.8).
November sank into December. If you are from north enough of the Equator that you recognize the power of that imagery, you know what I mean when I say that this line, in itself, completely took me back to the cold, bitter, still days of winter. But then McMillan quickly turns our attention to the sights and sounds that transform the deathly cold into a beautiful Christmas masterpiece:
We alighted on Yonge Street and walked amid the jangling sleigh bells, the horse-drawn carts toting their wares, and the automobiles skidding and honking in the twilight. The golden lights of the theatre marquees and the stores’ Christmas displays spilled onto the snow-slicked pavement (p.15).
Good writers are able to write an interesting story, giving you a wonderful aspect through a clever storyline.
Great writers, in addition, force you to reflect. You don’t just take away an interesting story, but moments of self-discovery.
A Singular and Whimsical Problem ignites our Christmas senses, forcing us to reflect on the difference between our Christmas and the Christmas of 1910. The swift sparkle of snow, jangling sleigh-bells, and golden lights, that McMillan speaks of, are all still very evident.
But what about our storyline…
Has the plight of immigrants changed?
Do women still have to be more masculine for power, even if today it’s more symbolic than literal?
Does the Christmas traditions I’ve created light up the bleakest of nights?
This Christmas, make reading A Singular and Whimsical Problem, part of your holiday. The storyline itself is a page-turner – I couldn’t have guessed the outcome of the mystery even if I tried!
But what lies deeper is an opportunity to question our selves. Is our light shining in the bitter cold of a winter night? which is really to ask….How well our we upholding the spirit of Christmas?
Find Rachel McMillan’s “A Singular and Whimsical Problem” on the e-reader of your choice, including:
Also available in Applications, including iBooks, Kindle, and Android.