Tour’s Books Blog

April 26, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Death of a Cozy Writer by G. M. Malliet

Rejoice you fans of classic manor house murders.  Give me an hallelujah and amen!  We have the heir to one of my favorite mystery categories in G. M. Malliet’s Chief Detective Inspector St. Just’s debut, Death of a Cozy Writer.  And it’s about damn time!  Cozy mysteries have become increasingly just too twee, too insipid, too contrived, too self-consciously cutsiepoo for words.  Filled with recipes, crossword puzzles, candle making tips, quilting, dogs, cats, ferrets – jeeze, you name it.  Worse still are some of those amateur sleuths who are really such annoying people you’re rooting for them to be the next victim.

I bought Death of a Cozy Writer because it was a 2008 Best First Novel nominee for an Agatha Award by Malice Domestic, the association of cozy writers, and the reviews were excellent.  If the cast of characters seem familiar, they should.  Everyone of them has been in an Agatha Christie mystery: the aging, rich, nasty, manipulative pater familias; the equally nasty, avaricious, self-centered eldest son with his grasping, greedy wife; the overweight, dowdy, socially clueless daughter who manages on her own; the pretentious, self-adsorbed art store owner son with his neglected but beautiful lady friend, and the alcoholic fringe actor son who knows even his marginal career is giving way to age.  Then there’s daddy’s bride-to-be, unexpectedly a woman of mature years but with a very scandalous background – suspected of having murdered her first husband.

If you’ve read Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries this is sounding a LOT like a mishmash of several of those books – and it is.  Christie used variations of these characters and basic plot devices numerous times.  Perhaps it’s why I found myself smiling so often while reading, it was like an unexpected visit with old acquaintances and finding them unchanged.  Some view this book as a send up of the manor house mystery, others as an homage.  Take your pick.  It is cheekily derivative, yet so well done you don’t care.

The invitations to the wedding of Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk arrive at the homes of his 4 grown children, Ruthven and his wife Lillian, George, Albert and Sarah.  Each is annoyed, alarmed and angry in a different way.  The aging Sir Adrian is a petty tyrant of a father, a man who loves to threaten his children with disinheritance, belittling them and mocking their aspirations.  He is a detestable man and delights in knowing his children all despise and fear him.  He also knows the invitations will bring them running to the huge pile of stone he calls his manor in hopes of this being yet another of their father’s ugly jokes, or at the very least securing their inheritance.

Having spun his web, Sir Adrian, who might charitably be described as a malignant narcissist, sits like a spider in his study hand writing a manuscript for yet another of his Miss Rampling cozies.  The books have made him rich and famous, but he’s come to despise the old biddy and would like nothing better than to kill her off.  His publishers and his fans will not allow it.  (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did that with Sherlock Holmes and had to bring him back from the ‘dead’.  Agatha Christie made no secret she had come to utterly detest Hercule Poirot and wanted to do him in and she too had to yield to her publisher and fans.)  This is a man who pretty much despises everyone, but reserves a special brand of venomous spite for his children and their mother – his ex-wife Chloe.  Only Ruthven, his eldest, seems to have inherited his ruthlessness and avaricious nature, traits he admires.  He has nothing but scorn for the weaknesses of the rest, in particular his daughter, Sarah.

Meeting Violet Mildenhall that first night leaves them all baffled.  She’s not at all what they expected.  Looking perhaps 60 to Sir Adrain’s 70, she speaks of WWII and being at minimum an adult at the end.  Whatever she is, she is not the young gold-digger they were all expecting.

Ruthven had already started a background check on his father’s intended and uncovered her likely involvement in her first husband’s death, though she was never prosecuted.  His brothers and sister doubt their canny father failed to do the same checks, so he likely knows all this already.  Given his penchant for the dramatic, it would be just like him to threaten to marry a suspected murderess.

The toxic atmosphere of the manor drives George and Natasha to drive to the village and sends Albert in search of something to drink.  Knowing Mrs. Romano, the cook and one of the few people Sir Adrian treated with some measure of respect, held the keys to the best vintages, he decides to settle for whatever he can find.  The crypt like cellar holds a different surprise.  Albert finds part of a manuscript that his father is writing, A Death in Scotland.  He pockets it, grabs some beer and leaves.

At dinner that second night, Sir Adrian drops the bomb and watches his children scramble.  He married Violet a week ago in Grenta Green and she is already Lady Violet.  Strangely, George seems to take the news better than the others.  He announces his girlfriend, Natasha, is carrying the first Beauclerk-Fisk grandchild.  Adrian immediately wants them married, Natasha flatly refuses.

After the evening’s drama, Albert find himself sleepless and too sober of his own good, so in the wee hours he goes looking for a bottle of wine.  He goes back to the cellar and stumbles over the body of his brother Ruthven.  The local constable who responds to Albert’s 999 call immediately realizes he needs help, which arrives in the form of Chief Detective Inspector St. Just and Detective Sergeant Fear.  Snow had been falling and there was no sign of anyone entering or leaving the manor, so St. Just knows his list of suspects is small.  Sir Adrian, Lady Violet, the now widowed Lillian, Albert, George, Natasha, Sarah,  Sir Adrian’s secretary Jeffery Spencer, the cook Mrs. Romano, her son and the manor butler Paulo Romano and a very elderly gardener, Watters.

Interviewing a dry-eyed family who seem not to be grieving at all yields no helpful information, so St Just heads for London to interview the Ruthven’s mother Chloe and his current mistress, a business associate.  Judging by Chloe, Albert comes by his love of drink honestly, but it is also obvious that she is distraught by Ruthven’s murder.  The mistress less so, but she reveals the extent of the desperate business condition that Ruthven was in.     Unfortunately, none of this helps with who in the house murdered him.

The evening finds St Just still at his desk at 8:30PM when a second call is received; Sir Adrian has been found murdered.  If ever a man was destined for such a death, Sir Adrian was it.  Only Mrs. Romano seems to mourn his passing.  His own family is in shock, but not great sorrow.  Next day, a call on Sir Adrian’s solicitor reveals that the most recent final will, made after his marriage and just a week before his death, has cut Ruthven out completely, so the two deaths could not be connected by inheritance.  Violet, his new wife, gets use of the house till her death, but the bulk of his estate is divided among his children – and the royalties from his last book, A Death in Scotland, to his ex-wife Chloe.  Mrs. Romano and Paulo each get nice lump sums.  Even the administration of his literary estate is left to Jeffery Spencer, his secretary.  The title will now fall to George, who is suspected of being involved in illegal drugs by the Metropolitan Police in London.

Further conversation with Spencer, reveals Sir Adrian’s new book is very different from any he’s done before.  The characters are real and it has the feel of being semi-autobiographical.  But two weeks ago, Sir Adrian stopped giving him pages to transcribe.  Paulo admits hiding the handwritten pages in the wine cellar at Sir Adrian’s request.

Meanwhile, Albert sneaks away from the estate, but is watched by the police, and goes to see Sir Adrian’s old secretary, Mrs. Butter – the only person beside Spencer he can think of that can read the manuscript he found in the wine cellar.

No spoilers.  DCI St Just aside, Death of a Cozy Writer is a true cozy in the same style you’d find with Christie, Allingham, Tey and Rinehart.   St Just pieces the truth together, and there’s no doubt he’s right, but evidence of guilt is slim and it will be up to the courts.  The climax plays out back at the manor – a real old drawing room confrontation with all the suspects. Malliet delivers clues mixed with red herrings throughout the story.  No obscure forensic information, no DNA, no last minute surprise evidence the reader knows nothing of – just a classic puzzle of people and their past and present with a fair chance of for the reader to figure it out.  I did figure who, even part of why (I remember my Christie too well), but even so, the ending held a few surprises.   Rare for me.

Malliet has an excellent style.  Her journalistic training shines through in the crisp prose and word building.  Her writing style is as solid as John Sanford.  Every so often she sneaks in a real zinger that will have you laugh out loud.  Malliet builds both plot and characters equally, not losing sight of the importance of both, though her tongue might be firmly in cheek now and then.  She makes no attempt to firmly date the events.  There are computers, faxes, rarely heard cell phones and emails, but no PDA’s, texting, Tweeting, or blogging.  Even the cars mentioned keep the ‘period’ undated.  Despite illegitimate children and two murders plus the old murder, there’s no sex, no gore and everyone keeps their clothes on.  There are no car chases, gun battles or any other ‘action.’  The cast of characters is small and they’re familiar, cliché perhaps, but the story is executed with style and verve and strong respect for the English cozy murder mystery style.  The plotting and the pace are spot on.  My one complaint – neither St Just nor Fear are given any real definition as characters.  Unlike Sir Roderick Allyen or Hercule Poirot and Capt. Hasting, you never get a real sense of either man beyond the slightest skecth of tallish, barrelchested men somewhere between 30 and 50 years.

Not a recipe, crossword puzzle, tea room, coffee shop or crime solving animal in sight.  Thank God!  I recommend reading it with a cup of tea and a scone.

My Grade: B+ to A- (4.5*)

Who would enjoy this book:  Any fan of Dame Agatha, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Josephine Tey and the rest of the classic mystery writers.  My rating would be PG-13

PS – Name the Agatha Christie  book that shares the following elements: 1. Country house 2. Despised patriarch killed 3. Murder in the past 4. Snow on the ground 5. Weakling children

I’ll tell you right now, she wrote two nearly identical ones, the primary difference being the method of the murder.

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