With romances being the majority of my fictive reading, it’s nice to have an occasional palate cleanser. More often than not, I turn to a cozy mystery to serve as such. Even though G. M. Malliet is a new to me author and I am loathe, being conservative in temperament, to risk the loss of precious reading time to an author who may prove to be unworthy of it, I cannot resist a vicar hero … and, in this case, also former-MI-5. I blame James Norton’s ample charms on Grantchester and my long-running love of Spooks/MI-5 and the feasting of eyes on Matthew Macfadyen, David Oweloyo, Rupert Penry Jones, and Richard Armitage in one glorious long-running series.
Malliet’s vicar-hero is a stunning man unaware of his stunning-ness, which makes him eminently lovable, adorable, and likeable. His occasional partner in crime-solving is his Wiccan wife, Awena, as well as young, intelligent local “copper,” DCI Cotton. They live in a conglomeration of little English towns with variations on the name Monkslip and in his vicar-guise Max is in charge of the souls and bodies of St. Edwold’s Church’s parishioners.
I admit to being an indifferent mystery reader, that is, any and all plot details are read distractedly, but if characterizations capture me, then I’m likely to follow a writer through her career, amble along never missing a volume added to a series. (May I say that Malliet, though I’d return to her books, did not supplant my great love of C. S. Harris’s St. Cyr mysteries. I’m hoarding the latest for my summer reading.) Suffice to say, Monkslip, like Midsomer Murders, boasts colourful characters, English countryside, sufficient references to local flora, fauna, and cuisine to make me yearn all over again for England, and a thoroughly moral, intelligent, sensitive protagonist in the Reverent Max Tudor. Max’s Monkslip includes a Lord Duxter, formerly David Bottom until he ascended to knighthood, who bought a priory from King’s College, Cambridge, Wooten Priory, and turned it into a writer’s retreat as a charitable offside to his publishing business, Wooten Press. The eponymous “Prior’s Wood” and everything surrounding Lord Duxter, is the scene of both an ancient and contemporary crime. The plot centres around the solving of the latter. (I hope to see more of the former in the next book, as it fascinated me equally.)
Malliet captured me and will bring me back to her series (the back list is already wending its way to me from Amazonia) because her writing is witty, succinct, and engaging, and her principal characters so likeable, I’d like to reach into the book and hug them. She achieves this characterization by writing well and with pith. Take, for example, one of the characters whose fate it is to be involved in the novel’s crime scene, the husband of Wooten Priory’s archivist/librarian, Colin Frost: “Colin was, in fact, a good-looking dolt, rather naïve and pliable. A man of modest accomplishments married to a woman of stunning ordinariness.” Frankly, I hooted with laughter and continued to sport a snorty-smile-laugh as I read through to the end.
Max makes for much of the series’s attraction. Note how Malliet cleverly makes him humble, charming, and heart-throbbingly good-looking enough to satisfy any romance reader’s heart: “Parishioners were known to borrow or even invent problems to bring to Max when they had no real problems of their own. There was something so soothing in his manner they felt the lightening of a burden shared, before they remembered there had been no real problem in the first place.” As Max becomes embroiled in the murder that happens “in Prior’s Wood” and which involves an unearthing of familial and community deceptions and evils, he is partnered (as I understand he’s been in previous books) with DCI Cotton, also young and principled, yet serving as a character counterpoint to Max: “Max always wanted to believe the best in people. It was the chink in his armor, that he was always surprised by man’s inhumanity. Max’s Pollyanna tendencies were legendary among those who knew him well. And whereas Max was saddened and sometimes angered by the knowledge of man’s inhumanity to man, Cotton was simply angered.” In a nutshell, Malliet drew me in and made me want to journey with Cotton, with Max, with Awena (and the Tudors’ delightful baby boy, Owen). Malliet has achieved a winning world here by making her main characters virtuous without being smarmy, good without judgement, and engaging without twee, which is the cozy mystery’s weakness.
If you’re an Agatha Christie fan, then you’ll certainly love Malliet’s series. Her nods and allusions to one of the genre’s greatest practitioners prove Malliet as good a reader of the genre as writer. If you are, like me, ignorant of Christie (not out of dislike, but out of the reader’s bane of “so many books, so little time”) then, you’ll love Max and his cohort of adorables. And you’ll love Malliet’s turns of phrase, my favourite being her nod to LeCarré and pithy description of Max’s life’s “dichotomy” as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Priest.” I thoroughly enjoyed In Prior’s Wood and I’ll return to Monkslip’s denizens for any and all future volumes. With Miss Austen, who would have appreciated Malliet’s fine sense of irony, I say In Prior’s Wood is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
G. M. Malliet’s In Prior’s Wood is published by Minotaur Books. It was released on April 17th and may be procured at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Minotaur Books, via Netgalley.