A wily es­pi­onage agent, a hand­some vicar and a shrewd sleuth

DEVIL’S BREATH: A MAX TU­DOR MYS­TERY

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Muriel Dob­bin Muriel Dob­bin is a for­mer White House and na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter for McClatchy news­pa­pers and the Bal­ti­more Sun.

Mixing a for­mer M15 agent with a dishy priest and a bunch of Hol­ly­wood gos­sips is guar­an­teed to be at least en­ter­tain­ing and po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive.

And it is in this lively and some­times hi­lar­i­ous ac­count of the lat­est adventures of Max Tu­dor, the erst­while agent who has be­come the vicar of Nether Monkslip — and there is no way you can im­prove on that name.

Gos­sip al­ways sells, es­pe­cially when it’s about politi­cians or the­atri­cal celebri­ties. Movie stars are of­ten more fas­ci­nat­ing than politi­cians when they plunge into scandal be­cause it tends to be more lurid if also more triv­ial. Ac­tresses hav­ing seven hus­bands takes on a cer­tain el­e­ment of farce whereas politi­cians can be steeped in the kind of so­cial catas­tro­phe that can ruin their ca­reers as well as their chances of re-elec­tion. Pres­i­dents, as we all know, are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to the raw kind of scandal that chases away vot­ers. Un­pre­dictabil­ity at the polls has come back to haunt many an am­bi­tious seeker of of­fice, and the best sto­ries of the po­lit­i­cal world can usu­ally be tracked to the colos­sal ego of the vote hunter.

In the cases dealt with by Max Tu­dor, he is play­ing a triple role as a for­mer es­pi­onage agent, a hand­some vicar and a re­mark­ably shrewd in­ves­ti­ga­tor. “Devil’s Breath” by G.M. Mal­liet is made more tasty with its por­trayal of once-luscious ac­tress Margot Browne. She is still cling­ing to what re­mains of her looks, strength­ened by a fe­ro­cious ego that has taken her along the road of suc­cess, drugs, men and even un­wanted chil­dren. The pri­mary ac­tion of the book is set aboard a lux­ury yacht run by Romero Fornier, a fa­mous di­rec­tor strug­gling to main­tain his rep­u­ta­tion while yearn­ing to be­come another Hitch­cock. His days of glory as a di­rec­tor have been brief and are fad­ing fast like his one­time ro­mance with Margot, whom he has now re­placed with Tina, who is as gor­geous as he wants but is also very sim­i­lar to a younger Margot.

Margot, of course, has long ago re­placed Romero with a series of other lovers, the lat­est be­ing the cur­rent Jake, a des­per­ately up-and­com­ing young ac­tor who is hop­ing for the role of a glad­i­a­tor in Romero’s lat­est epic, which tells you some­thing about how up-and-com­ing he is. One of the most vivid char­ac­ters whom Max has to in­ter­view is Mau­rice, a hair stylist to the stars and a man who know ev­ery­thing about ev­ery­body and is com­pas­sion­ate enough not to talk about it. Peo­ple know what Mau­rice knows and they also know he is not the kind of man who talks. It sug­gests that hair styling has a more philo­soph­i­cal range than act­ing, although in it end it has a cost for poor old Mau­rice.

Mur­der does play a part in the book when Margot is poi­soned and then drowned off the lux­ury yacht, but it is the kind of mys­tery where the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the cast is much more in­trigu­ing than what is in fact a rather mun­dane crime — es­pe­cially since Margot was the kind of vic­tim whom some­body was even­tu­ally go­ing to get rid of. Her per­sonal se­crets were many and dra­matic in na­ture and it is per­haps sur­pris­ing that her death didn’t take place sooner.

Max Tu­dor is ide­ally cast as the man who lis­tens and in the end puts all the pieces to­gether so he can go home to his beautiful wife and his eight-month-old son, who have given his life a to­tally dif­fer­ent cast. On the other hand, Max re­mains on call to MI5 and his clan­des­tine boss Ge­orge, who sees the role of vil­lage priest as ap­pro­pri­ate to a job of ex­pos­ing real se­crets. Max points out that he is con­stantly amazed and amused by the up­roars that ac­com­pany his du­ties of writ­ing ser­mons.

Es­pe­cially shock­ing, he de­clares, is the brawl that usu­ally ac­com­pa­nies a “bring and buy” sale by the proper ladies of his con­gre­ga­tion. In fact, he has en­coun­tered homi­cide in stranger places, but the only per­son who com­plains about this is his bishop who isn’t quite com­fort­able with his vicar’s propen­sity for find­ing dark deeds in a church.

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