This book established itself immediately as being a traditional mystery, reminiscent of the Golden Age of detective fiction, by having one of those delightful lists at the start which describes all of the characters and their relationships. As well, the story began with two church ladies in the small village of Nether Monkslip fighting over the Christmas church display, so I knew for certain that I was in Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy L. Sayers territory.
However, the setting of the book is current, and this becomes especially clear when the protagonist, Max Tudor, enters the picture. Max is a modern man, a handsome Anglican priest who has come to this second career only after spending much of his adult life as an agent for MI5. He’s unusual not only for making such a dramatic change in his working life, but also in his unconventional appreciation of Awena , the village’s lovely pagan.
As Max goes about his regular life, preparing sermons for the Christmas season, trying to placate the feuding flower ladies by taking in an adventurous cat, and struggling to find ways to maintain the church which is always in need of repair, he is called away to nearby Chedrow Castle, to help the local police investigate a murder.
Chedrow Castle is owned by Oscar, Lord Footrustle, who, in a bold move, decided to invite his three children (one middle-aged, two teenagers), his ex-wife, and his two nephews to stay with him for the festive season, despite the fact that none of them get along very well at all. Normally, the elderly Lord Footrustle resides quietly at the castle with his twin sister, Letitia, and her unhappy granddaughter, Lamorna, neither of whom was in favour of having guests to stay. Add a butler with a bit of a mysterious background, and his forthright wife, the cook, and you have the perfect characters for a locked-room mystery.
I felt Malliet was very successful at creating an updated cozy mystery. I loved the setting of Nether Monkslip, which seemed very appealing with its small mix of shops and restaurants, and inhabitants who might disagree but who also look out for one another. And Max, despite his similarities to Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or Roderick Alleyn, is definitely his own distinct character.
The mystery itself was satisfying, and I was completely fooled by the set-up, which was done fairly.
Malliet is clearly a mystery lover herself, and the fun she had in creating a story which pays tribute to the writers who came before her, can be felt throughout the book. I will definitely be looking for the rest of the books in this series.
Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, January 2016.