Nether Monkslip, a quiet leafy village in England, on the eve of the Harvest Fayre. Wanda Batton-Smythe, the draconian leader of the local W.I. is managing to make herself even more unpopular than normal to ensure that the Fayre, the jewel in her crown, goes off without a hitch. So come the day of the Fayre, everything is in place – various stalls, a fortune teller, competing food tents, a dead body… Oh, she didn’t plan on the last thing.
Enter the local vicar, Max Tudor, an ex-MI5 agent who has now found the solace that he needed in the parish. But his personal paradise being invaded by evil is not something he is going to let happen, and soon he finds himself investigating a mystery. After all, everybody hated Wanda… but did anyone hate her enough to find a devious way to murder her?
G M Malliet has written, to date, three “Death Of A…” mysteries featuring DCI St Just, and this is the first in a new series featuring ex-spy-turned-vicar Max Tudor. I was sent a copy by the publisher as it seemed to be the sort of thing that I would like… An optimistic move, I thought, as the publisher also publishes MC Beaton’s work, and we won’t say any more about my experiences there. But I needed an easy read… but is that what I got?
First of all, much better than Beaton. Light years ahead, in my humble opinion.
The spy-turned-vicar idea struck me as a little bizarre when reading the blurb, and, if it sets off alarm bells with you dear reader, do rest assured that it is one of the most effective bits of the book. The narrative of the mystery is interspersed with Max’s reminiscences of how he got to this point of his life and it gives an added dimension to an idea that on the face of it sounds a bit silly but it gives the lead character a lot more depth and humanity that a lot of detectives that I can think of.
The rest of the village gets a good airing too. I don’t know how many of them will re-appear in the next book (and therefore wiping them off the list of suspects if you read the series out of order) but all of them, including the killer, get some decent development. Also, plaudits for not making Max’s love-life a focal point of the plot. There is something brewing in that direction, but it’s a minor thing rather than a major distraction. Presumably this is going to develop over the books, but, again unlike some other series, it’s not at all obvious which way things will go.
The mystery? Well, it stumped me. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s completely classically clued – in the finale, I’m not convinced that Max knew who was going to turn up in his trap – but it makes a lot of little things throughout the book make sense. I twigged the most important clue after the murderer had been revealed – I realised the relevance before Max explained it all – but I was fooled, good and proper. Yes, the killer’s plan is rather extreme – and the bit with the wig is an odd distraction – but it does make sense.
Niggles? There are a couple of points where the writer’s US roots betray her – a reference to someone’s grandmother having a recipe for candied yams, and a mention of zucchini (courgettes for people on this side of the pond) – but other than this, the portrayal of life in an English village is light enough to satisfy the cozy readers and with enough darkness at the edges for the reader who wants to see it.
Overall, this is an extremely well-crafted book and an enjoyable read. I’ll be looking out for more in the series, and the author’s previous work too. Highly Recommended.
WHERE CAN I GET IT?
It’s been out in the US for a while, and it’s already available as an ebook over here. The paperback is out in mid-July.