Father Brown? Phooey! Give us Max Tudor!
On the occasion of my recent birthday [I won’t say which!], a friend from Boston gave me a book by G. M. Malliet. Malliet is a well-travelled American writer who spent several years doing graduate studies in the UK and now resides in Alexandria, Virginia. The somewhat redundantly titled A Fatal Winter (2012) is the second in the seasonally titled Max Tudor series, of which there are now six with a seventh due out next year. She is also the author of the Inspector St. Just series, one of which won an Agatha Award, and several of her other works have been nominated for the same prize. Six categories of Agatha Awards are given annually by Malice Domestic Inc. for the cozy mystery subgenre (closed setting, no sex or violence, amateur detective). Weycombe, her first stand-alone novel, is scheduled for release next month. The Lennoxville Library has three of her books: two in English and one in French translation, and A Fatal Winter can be speedily accessed through inter-library loan.
Malliet’s work has been compared favourably to that of both Agatha Christie and the Townships’ own Louise Penny, whose latest Inspector Gamache mystery, Glass Houses, is available at the Lennoxville Library. In fact, A Fatal Winter reveals several links to our local celeb. There is an acknowledgement of Ms. Penny’s generosity in supporting Malliet’s writing ambitions, and there is also a very strong endorsement from the Knowlton author herself. Of another work, Penny has said, “Rarely have I read descriptions that have left me gasping, in both their hilarity and their painful truth.”
Max Tudor is a former MI5 agent who has heard the call and taken Holy Orders. He is now vicar of St. Edwold’s church in the village of Nether Monkslip in South West England. (Mind you, this “village” does have train service, which is more than most of us villagers can say.) But Max has not forgotten the skills he acquired at MI5, nor has he lost his love of the chase. These facts are not wasted on DCI Cotton of the Monkslipsuper-mare police. So when Oscar Footrustle, lord of nearby Chedrow Castle, is found murdered in his bed, and his twin sister Lady Leticia is found dead shortly thereafter, Cotton knows the man he wants on the inside.
Ostensibly Father Max is brought in to offer advice on funeral arrangements and to provide grief counselling. He arrives to find the castle is full of the Footrustles’ children and grandchildren who have been summoned, much to their surpise, by Oscar (ante-mortem) from various places around the globe for a family Christmas celebration. Max quickly discovers that no one is interested in his ideas for funerals and that there is scant grief to counsel. Moreover, the siblings’ animosity towards each other is not much less than it had been towards their recently deceased parents.
One of Malliet’s strengths is her drily humorous renditions of characters’ thoughts: “Max was a peacemaker by nature, and conflict of any size sparked an overwhelming need in him to intervene, to quell the disturbance. Max now called on all his acquired skills in calming troubled waters. After all, he reminded himself, he had faced down a variety of rancorous church committees, not to mention the notoriously cranky Nether Monkslip Book Club, whose members often came to grief in deciding on the monthly read. Dealing with this dysfunctional family, a murderous psychopath among them, should be easy by comparison.”
Max’s cover is fully blown when Cotton invites him to sit in on the interviews with the survivors/witnesses/suspects. Everyone, including the servants, had hopes of receiving an inheritance, so they all had a motive to kill one or both of the twins. Moreover, most of them have had some experience in show business, so it is difficult to tell when they are acting and when they are not. Max’s worst fears are realized when there is another murder. While this death complicates matters, it also opens up new avenues of inquiry.
A Fatal Winter is a fun read, or as much fun as one can expect when there are three deaths. A big part of the amusement comes from the major subplot. Father Max is unattached, dashingly handsome, a skilled dancer, and a lover of animals. None of this goes unnoticed by the women of the village. If Malliet were a man and let her male characters talk about women the way her women talk about Max, she would probably find herself being roundly denounced from the second-storey windows as a sexist swine. “If I thought I’d be in with a chance, I’d dump my old misery-guts of a husband and go after Father Max myself.”
Readers are cautioned to have access to both an architectural and a horticultural dictionary. Malliet goes into considerable detail in her description of the castle and the gardens that appertain thereto. And like Louise Penny, she is well acquainted with good food. So keep the kitchen door locked when she is describing meals or trips to the bakery.