|The Rev Maxen "Max" Tudor had been the vicar of St Edwold's (one of three joined parishes) in the idyllic village of Nether Monkslip for 3 years. He was a “darkly handsome man .... tall and with a compact, muscular build" who was still the “object of much interest and strategic planning" by parishioners hoping to find him a wife. He “was a man physically at ease in the world, and his authoritative mien stood him well among the more fractious members of his congregation."
He had trained for the priesthood at Oxford after years spent in the service of the security service, MI5, to which he had been recruited while still an undergraduate at Oxford. However, after the violent death of a close friend and colleague, he felt he could not continue in MI5: "He had seen it all, witnessed too much .... So began his surrender to feeling rather than to thought" as he joined “the dwindling ranks of men and women who saw the church as an avenue of peaceful change."
He has a quick understanding of people (having "an ability to relate to people of all stripes") and of their motives and is a shrewd observer, so becomes what a friendly police officer calls, “a regular Miss Marple in Holy Orders", for he has "the soul of a detective .... Any doubts had to be allayed in Max's mind before he would accept what was to anyone else the obvious conclusion. It made him a brilliant priest - sympathetic and thoughtful, not prone to quick or harsh judgments. It made him an even better investigator."
G M Malliet is an American who did post-graduate work at Oxford University after earning a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. She worked as a journalist and copywriter for news publications and broadcasters then went on to write the award-winning Cambridge-based St Just series which, she says, offers "affectionate send-ups of the traditional British mystery." She now lives in Virginia - and that is about all the biographical information she seems prepared to divulge!
Wicked Autumn (2011)
Wicked Autumn introduces us to some rather stereotyped village characters, including Wanda Batton-Smythe, the formidable and much-feared head of the local Women's Institute. She had made many enemies who are not too upset when she is found dead at the Harvest Fayre. Local vicar Max Tudor suspects foul play and eventually manages to confront the murderer.
Other characters include Mrs Hoosier, who was “at best an indifferent housekeeper .... a fact to which Max had long become resigned .... With bovine cunning, she would attempt to hide the evidence of the latest catastrophe the broken crockery, the missing drawer handle."
Wanda's husband, the pompous Major, “was almost a Dickensian character, wearing blockaded waistcoats in all seasons and with a Rudolph-like red nose that could nearly light the way in the holiday pageant." He had never seen any action during his army lfe; indeed a senior officer had recommended he should “be confined to a behind the scenes role very behind."
There's also an unpublished author, Frank Cuthbert, who “was offering an unwary public his self-published book a long, wrangling, crackpot pamphlet really on the history of the region, spliced with dubious, hand drawn maps of local walks that, if followed closely could land the user miles from civilisation."
Then there is Constable Musteile who was “ramrod straight, unyielding, and imaginative. Profoundly stupid, in fact. A man who followed the rules, and asked no questions as to whether each rule really applied in every situation."
There are lots more such characters that emerge more as caricatures than as real people, although the author can write with real humour. Indeed even the figurine of a shepherdess is amusingly described as “made of plaster of Paris and amateurishly painted, the shepherdess's hectic expression suggesting a facelift operation gone wrong, the receipt of a telegram containing bad news, or the irretrievable loss of her flock."
The story unfolds in an unexciting sort of way and the final arrest of the murderer, followed by pages of explanatory material is less dramatic than you might suppose. It is intended as the first of a series of books so perhaps the character of Max Tudor will develop.
A Fatal Winter (2012)
A Fatal Winter sees "the Reverend (and extremely dishy) Max Tudor" helping Detective Chief Inspector Cotton to investigate the deaths of Oscar, Lord Footrustle, and then his sister Leticia, Lady Baynard, at Chedrow Castle. His growing attraction to Awena Owen (who calls herself a Neopagan and runs her own local Goddessspell shop, "the place of one-stop-shopping for every item designed to soothe or enchant") provides the romance: "Awena caught Max's eye and it was like a bolt of lightning had blazed across the room".
Suspects include the recent arrival at Chedrow Castle of a raucous group of long-lost, greedy relatives, any one of whom has a motive for murder. And there is the grown-up self-pitying unwanted "motherless orphan" Lamorna who enjoys telling Max, "there is a curse on this house. It will fall like the Tower of Babel".
The story is told in a leisurely although amusing way, as when DCI Cotton realises that "The butler in both cases had found the bodies. The butler did it? Far too predictable, that solution, but always a possibility. Only in fiction did the butler not do it. They were the last of the put-upon employees, a dying breed, born forelock-tuggers with a grudge. One final demand for a scone buttered just so might have sent the poor man right over the edge." But this sort of jokey approach is not funny enough to hold the interest throughout, especially as it it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who is who, even with the help of the cast list at the front of the book.
It is an unlikely tale with implausible sub-P G Wodehouse aristocratic characters, lacking any real sense of excitement. And it ends with everyone assembling in the library for some 30 pages of tedious explanations plus some melodrama. Max Tudor himself still has his moments but they are too few and far between.
A Pagan Spring (2013)
A Pagan Spring starts with The Rev Max Tudor, revelling in his new-found personal happiness with neopagan Awena Owen (for whom, if absolutely necessary, he says he would even be prepared to leave the church!), and feeling that life at the moment holds no greater challenge than writing his Easter sermon (and that seems about his only church duty apart from telling off two of his parishioners for allowing their 12 year old daughter to come to church "wearing a mere suggestion of a skirt and a low-cut blouse that barely covered a shelf-like bra she wouldn't actually need for a couple more years"). He was trying to base his sermon on one of St Paul's letters to the Corinthians (an odd choice for Easter surely?) but didn't get far as he was convinced that Paul had just been an "old Gloomy Gus missionary".
With Awena away, he looks forward to a dinner that welcomes newcomers to the village, including self-styled West End dramatist Thaddeus Bottle (an entertaining caricature of a vain and bossy little man) and his mousey wife Melinda. But when Thaddeus is found dead in the wee small hours, it is obvious that the little village of Nether Monkslip still has its problems.
The story is enlivened by some quite amusing descriptions of village life, including the pretentious writers' group known as Writers' Square, so called because "this sounded so much more avant-garde than Writers' Circle. They were determined .... to be avant-garde if at all possible" even if one of them had produced no more than "an index card containing a home recipe for an avocado face mask." They met "in one of the many nooks of Adam's bookshop, The Onlie Begetter, where stacks of old books and coffee-table books were used were used as tables, lending a new meaning to the term." This sort of gentle humour is found throughout, and characters like Suzanna (who "had assumed a recently vacated position in the role of Village Bossypants" and had arranged for the Women's Institute to provide a "Know Your Bits" evening, "a feminist offering boycotted by Miss Pitchford and several others") make it a rather more lively cozy than the previous books.
The handsome Max Tudor's good looks had, we are told, caused church attendance to sky-rocket and made him "the recipient of countless gifts of hand-knit scarves, socks, and jumpers, most of them multi-coloured and of an indescribable awfulness." Once again, it is all very cozy - if quite unreal. So the usual lengthy explanations at the end of the book (including some unecessary repititions of what we have already been told) again fail to hold the interest, because it is hard to take any of it that seriously.
There is one startling exception, when we flash back to the odious Thaddeus as a boy of 10 at the time of the Resistance in France, that has a grim reality quite out of keeping with the cozy tone of the rest of the book. The author explains in an end note that this part of the story "is true in its essence". It is "a composite of the ordeals of 230 women captured in the roundup of French resisters during World War II." It just makes the rest of the book seem that much more trivial.
Unfortunately, the besotted Max seems to grow less and less convincing as a priest, and, as he himself admits, he "had misread so many clues" that he realised that "he'd lost his touch since his M15 days."
A Demon Summer (2014)
A Demon Summer starts with an attempt to poison the highly unpopular Lord Lislelivet with a fruitcake made by the Handmaids of St Lucy of Monksbury Abbey. The lord complains to his local bishop who asks Father Max Tudor (who is not at all happy having to part from his pregnant partner Awena, now more correctly described as neo pagan rather than Neopagan) to investigate. But the bishop has an additional concern: allegations have been made that the "decidedly jumpy" nuns have mishandled funds raised by wealthy Americans to expand their guesthouse. And now those irate patrons have descended on the abbey, along with Lord Lislelivet, to do some sleuthing of their own. Just as Max comes to believe the poisoning was accidental, a body is discovered in the cloister well. And he discovers that the nuns have another secret: a sacred image with "a face like that on the Shroud of Turin".
Some of the descriptions of nuns are quite amusing, such as that of the ancient gatekeeper Dame Hephzibar, and the so-called "Dame Fruitcake", but when Max goes round from nun to nun, interviewing each at length, it becomes quite an endurance test, not only for him but for the reader as well. When a seriously ill nun tells him, "I know God is with us even in suffering ... He doesn't shoot us full of arrows and then turn away. Who could believe in a God capable of that?", Max "had no answers for her. His strength as a priest lay not in offering bromides, but in listening as people tried to come to terms with unthinkable realities." He still does not make a very convincing clergyman, and the heights of fantasy are reached when the bishop happily attends his eventual "handfasting" (a pagan wedding ceremony in which Air, Fire, Water and Earth are invited "to witness the healing power of their love").
The story had got off to quite a promising start with the nunnery offering a potentially interesting background, but it all proceeds at such a leisurely pace that interest is soon lost. Even "a heart-rendering scream" in the night" lacks much sense of excitement, and it is beyong belief that DCI Cotton should leave all the investigating to Max. Then it ends with him assembling all the suspects (in the Poirot manner) and talking and talking for as long as 58 pages! Did no-one edit this book?
It is a long book that seems even longer, and should have been pruned vigorously, with unnecessary repititions removed (we are, for example, told three times why Lord Lislelivet visited the monastery). It is very much designed to appeal to American readers of romantic cozies (hence the neo pagan Awena, the stereotyped treatment of the aristocracy, the romanticised picture of village life, marred by the way supposedly English characters use Americanisms) and is, I am afraid, not to be recommended outside those shores.
The author has her own website.
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