Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cozy with an Edge

I had fully expected to enjoy G. M. Malliet's first mystery, Death of a Cozy Writer, when it was released a few years ago. It had been introduced to high critical acclaim, won an Agatha for best first novel, and was shortlisted for several other prestigious awards. It had everything for a cozy lover: English manor house, guests trapped by a snowstorm, nasty rich author taunting his greedy children about changes to his will, grand denoument with all of the suspects assembled. Fond memories of Christie's And Then There Were None and The Mousetrap swirling in my head, I promptly read it–and regretted it.

It is a police procedural, but the detectives aren't introduced until the last third of the book, and then quite sketchily. If it is fair play, as the classics usually are, I couldn't spot the clues. Most of the characters are tiresome caricatures of the usual suspects from other cozies, and the style is so archly tongue-in-cheek that I had trouble finishing it. She has written a couple more in that series, neither of which I've bothered to read.

So why, when offered a review copy of Wicked Autumn: A Max Tudor Novel, the author's first book in a new series, did I take it? Maybe it was the comparison one reviewer made to St. Mary Mead, Miss Marple's home town. Or the protagonist, a sexy MI-5 spy turned village vicar (now that's a little different in a cozy). Maybe a good editor had reined in the overblown self-conscious humor? For whatever reason, I'm very glad I did!

As the first in an intended series, quite a bit of the book is devoted to a leisurely set-up so thorough that a careful reader could find her way if dropped suddenly into the center of the village, and could probably recognize many of the characters on the street. No map is included, although
the author has posted a charming online interactive map of Nether Monkslip to complete its cozy credentials. The cast of characters is also listed, so we can probably expect to meet most of them in subsequent books–unless they're killed off first.

Although the lanes are still narrow and some of the buildings may lean a little, Nether Monkslip (what in the world does that mean?) has had a bit of an update since the days of the traditional cozy. Many of the businesses in town do a brisk internet trade in items from antiques to new-age crystals to handmade marzipan candies. Father Max thought he had found an idyllic place to scrub away the memories of his MI-5 service that still haunted him.

Of course every pudding has its lumps, and Nether Monkslip's is wealthy Wanda Batton-Smythe, formidable self-appointed Leader of the Community and head of the Women's Institute. As the book opens, she is busily planning the Harvest Fayre; perfectly sure of how it should be run, running roughshod over any and all other opinions. Are we unbearably surprised when she shows up dead in the midst of the Fayre? The cause of death, which at first seems obvious, turns out to involve a fairly terrible method completely new to me.

This is an enjoyable fair-play spoof on the mysteries of the Golden Age. Occasional flashes of well-placed laugh-out-loud humor have replaced the brittle archness that set my teeth on edge in the earlier book. I was a little concerned with how much of Max's past the author reveals in this first book; will he continue to be as intriguing a figure with his angst out of the bag–at least to the reader? Of course, the burning question of whether Father Max is unmarried from religious conviction or happenstance will probably continue to occupy the villagers for books to come.

I laud the author’s attempts to carry the classic cozy into the 21st century and "beef it up" a bit, and will follow her efforts with interest. For my taste, the sub-genre has become a little overpopulated in recent years with coffee, quiche, and quilts; so a young handsome vicar makes a welcome entry into the field.

Note: I received Wicked Autumn: A Max Tudor Novel as a free review copy. Also, portions of the review in this post appear in a book review posted on the book's product pages on Amazon, under my Amazon pen name.


  1. Okay, Peri, that interactive map did it. River Puddmill, the Plague Tree. Totleigh Hall, Morning Glory Cottage. I need to read the book. I'm always on the look out for those traditional mysteries with a little edge. Thanks.

  2. I've never read this author but I might have to try her latest. Your description of DEATH OF A COZY WRITER has me wondering why that novel was so well-regarded...

  3. I feel exactly the same way about both books. DEATH OF A COZY WRITER was just too cutesy, but I enjoyed WICKED AUTUMN a lot and look forward to the next in the series.

  4. Lisa, I am a bit of a curmudgeon about self-consciously arch humor - a little goes a long way for me, and Death of a Cozy Writer was way over my limit.
    Of course, I often disagree with NY Times rave reviews too.

    Della, aren't the place names delicious?

  5. I will have to go on record as liking DEATH OF A COZY WRITER by G.M. Malliet. Maybe I was just in the mood for it at the time, but I thought the next few in the series were enjoyable as well. This is interesting because cozies are not usually my cup of tea. I am really looking forward to reading WICKED AUTUMN in order to compare the series.

  6. Book titles influence my choice of novels in this time of easy-access e-Books. Death of a Cozy Writer would not warrant my attention, but the title, Wicked Autumn, along with your informative review, peaked my curiosity. I see it is high in the Amazon Kindle ranking even with the higher than normal price. As a reader, that speaks to me more than a publisher's heavy marketing strategy of praising a novel with an eye to increasing their own profit margin.

  7. Gail, if you read it please come back and let us know what you think of it! Modernizing the traditional British cozy is a daunting task, but the author has introduced some promising characters here. Be sure to check out the interactive map if you haven't already.

  8. Reading this entry I kept feeling that I'd read something like WICKED AUTUMN. Then it came to me----a Reginald Hill book called A Cure For All Diseases. Holistic healing, new-agey stuff and a 'gruesome' murder.

    "Convalescing in Sandytown, a quiet seaside resort devoted to healing, Dalziel befriends Charlotte Heywood, a fellow newcomer and psychologist, who is researching the benefits of alternative therapy. With much in common, the two soon find themselves in league when trouble comes to town. Sandytown's principal landowners have grandiose plans for the resort -- none of which they can agree on. One of them has to go, and when one of them does, in spectacularly gruesome fashion, DCI Peter Pascoe is called in to investigate -- with Dalziel and Charlotte providing unwelcome support. But Pascoe finds dark forces at work in a place where medicine and holistic remedies are no match for the oldest cure of all! "


  9. Good point, cave76. I remember that book. It was a change of pace for the Dalziel/Pascoe series. It reminds me, though, that I need a Reginald Hill fix soon. I thought MIDNIGHT FUGUE was fantastic, but it seems like a long time since I read it.

  10. Cave76, is A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES the one where the practitioner had a secret, ah, workshop in an old airplane hanger? That was a gruesome book!

  11. Sister Mary, it's too bad that you don't like psychological suspense because Reginald Hill's THE WOODCUTTER is an incredible book. Did you read his standalone, THE STRANGER HOUSE? It's part historical fiction and a good read, too.

  12. @Periphera,

    If there was an airplane hanger in that book, those synapses in my mind have been blown! I can't remember yay or nay.

    BTW-----googling the title without adding Hill's name to the search will bring up, in keeping with google ads standards (!), will bring up the charlatan of all charlatans book---- with the same name as Hill's book.