Monday, September 12, 2011

Crime Fiction: Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet

Although I’m often intrigued by new and unusual settings for murder, I remain a devotee of the English village mystery. It offers a delightful combination of the mildly exotic (different foods, different slang, different politics) and the familiar (people in small groups getting along, or not, with each other).

What author G.M. Malliet, who was educated in England but lives in Virginia, has done in Wicked Autumn (Minotaur) is produce an authentic village mystery that also pokes fun at the conventions. And she does it without mockery, which is an achievement.

This story focuses on Max Tudor (great name!), a former MI5 agent turned Anglican priest, who must cope with violence in the quiet village of Nether Monkslip in the south of England. (The name Nether Monkslip practically screams small English village. It’s no surprise to learn that residents there must go to the larger Monkslip-super-Mare to handle some business.)

Max is perhaps a somewhat unlikely vicar, yet Malliet makes his protagonist’s choice of joining the Church seem appropriate, given that he’s endured a violent past that continues to haunt him. The good-looking but celibate Max is an important part of the local community. He is involved in the village, and yet a little bit apart. It has taken him a long time to feel at home, and truly welcomed, in Nether Monkslip -- at least as far as he is willing to reveal himself.

In Wicked Autumn, the murder of an insufferable woman, who was rather a tyrant in village affairs, tears apart the fabric of the small community, and Max, who has finally found some peace, struggles to re-establish it. There’s an assortment of characters who are not quite the ones typically found in an English hamlet, but close enough, in an updated sort of way. There’s the browbeaten widower, known as the Major; the owner of the antique store; a sympathetic woman who runs a New Age business; the village doctor and his sexy sister; a restaurateur with a Continental background; and a woman who spins her own yarn before knitting it into expensive garments.

There’s also the village itself; there’s a lovely interactive map of Nether Monkslip on the author’s Web site, for example, that makes me want to move across the Pond.

Malliet deftly juggles all of her characters, making Nether Monkslip both real and a fantasyland. The murder plot here is quite devious and the motive quite evil, which grounds the story. The quintessential English village mysteries featuring the redoubtable Miss Jane Marple also dealt with the existence of genuine evil, and the need to be vigilant against it.

The author provides a story that works on several levels, including the pleasure of a visit to a traditional English village. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Anonymous J.Minor said...

I purchased this book because of this review; however, I was disappointed in the story. It could have been so much more. The reviewer called the plot 'quite devious' and used terms 'quite evil, genuine evil.' I expect a few chills when words like this are used,and there were none. Nice little story, but not at all gripping. I found myself leaving as long as a week between reading parts of it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011 at 4:26:00 PM PST  

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