Wanting a break from Chicago crime, freelance reporter Cat Marsala heads out to the DeGraaf family farm, deep in Michigan Christmas-tree country. Snuggled in the warmth of the close-knit DeGraafs--brothers Hank (furniture maker who doubles as president of the West Michigan Evergreen Growers Association) and John (high-school English teacher), sister Marie Heidema (X-ray technician at Holland Hospital), and their children and elderly mother--she spends Thanksgiving weekend eating turkey, observing how the family harvests blue spruces and Scotch pines, and gathering information about cutting, grading, and baling. (This last will come in especially useful when somebody puts gang boss Luis Montoya through a baling machine, and Cat's confronted with a killing as coldhearted as anything back in Chicago.) Cat's closeness to John's 13-year-old daughter Nell--who seems painfully vulnerable, maybe because of her possible involvement with Luis, maybe because she thinks her late grandfather was murdered too--and her growing knowledge of the DeGraafs' century-old roots and the crisis their little farm faces make the case particularly poignant, and particularly unpleasant to solve. The title says it all. Despite the evergreen setting, Cat's sixth appearance (Hard Case, 1994, etc.) is one hard Christmas--and her saddest book yet.