I admit it took a while for me to really get into the book--a third of the way in, actually. I almost put it down a few times. I liked the mystery of the missing dog, but I hated the tense changes (which are constant and which I found super distracting). Then the book took a few twists and suddenly I was hooked.
The twists didn't have anything to do with the mystery, which I figured out as soon as the guilty party was introduced as a character. Instead, they had to do with the sudden addition of Sammy (Samantha) Keyes thinking about her mother, her 72-year-old friend, and her mean neighbor in a way that turns the book from a run-0f-the-mill preteen mystery to a thoughtful exploration of the meanings of friendship and loss. Yes, really.
Thirteen-year-old Sammy never intended to get mixed up with the Christmas parade, she just promised to help a friend who was part of the dog calendar float. But she gets stuck taking care of the star dog, a Pomeranian who jumps through a hoop--in this case, a wreath. Everything's going well until three people dressed as Wise Men toss angry cats at the float. The dogs go crazy, and when the dust settles, the Pomeranian is missing. While searching for it, Sammy discovers an elf--okay, an eight-year-old girl dressed as an elf--who's also been missing. But the dog is long gone and its owner holds Sammy responsible, especially after the first ransom note is delivered.
Sammy is full of energy, and outgoing without being obnoxious. Although she takes some risks, I never had a "no, Sammy, don't do it argh I can't believe you're being so stupid" moment. She's smart, too. But what I like most is that she's less interested in finding the dog to get herself off the hook than in solving the mystery of why the elf keeps running away from home. And when her mean neighbor falls and breaks an arm, Sammy becomes mixed up in the moving story of the woman's life. I like the way Sammy handles herself with someone who has never been nice to her but who needs her help--and not tangible help, but the sort that requires Sammy to think about her own motivations and those of others.
I haven't read the other books in this series, but I really liked this one. I'm glad I kept reading.