Sunday, October 30, 2011

NEW STUFF: Wicked Autumn - G. M. Malliet

Fans of the traditional mystery have much to to be excited about with the release of G. M. Malliet's latest book which also launches a new series featuring Max Tudor, a sleuthing vicar in the quaint English village of Nether Monkslip. More than any new book recently published this one is a genuine throwback to the Golden Age of Detection. Critics and fans are prone to whip up all sorts of analogies on new books and dust jacket blurbs are eager to compare new writers to existing writers. On occasion someone will dare to call a writer "the new Christie" or write "if you like Dorothy Sayers you'll LOVE this book." All too often these analogies are dubious and ill-informed and the inheritor of some earlier writer's mantle is far from deserving that honor. Not so with Wicked Autumn which is one of the most genuine, tightly plotted, well clued, fair play retro detective novels to come along in a very long time. Comparisons to the Grand Dame herself in this case are more than well deserved.

Wanda Batton-Smythe is the commandeering, self-appointed leader of the Women's Institute in Nether Monkslip and she is not pleased with the shoddy volunteer work for the upcoming Harvest Fayre. She is an unyielding, demanding bully and not at all popular with the other women in the group or even the rest of the village. When she turns up dead the day of the festival dressed in an uncharacteristically voguish attire Max Tudor suspects that the seemingly accidental death may in fact be a deliberate act of foul play. Further investigation reveals Wanda died of anaphylactic shock resulting from her intense allergy to peanuts. Her usual epinephrine injector always on her person is nowhere to be found. Tudor is convinced she was murdered and sets out to prove it.

The tone is sardonic, the murder is fiendishly carried out in a manner that rivals John Rhode's imaginative murder methods, the detection is sharp, and the characters give the book it's very contemporary feel amid all the traditional whodunit trappings. But it is Malliet's unique prose style that truly makes this book something special. There are writers and then there are word magicians; Malliet has a way with constructing sentences and describing people and places that is nothing short of wizardry.

The words dripped with ice, but Awena could almost have sworn she saw flames burning behind the grey eyes. Her imagination added tiny martyrs chained to a stake.

...eyes that generally held such a faraway look her real target might have been Alpha Centauri.

...her hair had been loosed from its Final Net death grip and stood out in a sort of halo around her head...

It was as if [the Major had] never been in his own kitchen before. Indeed, Max thought it likely Wanda was one of those women who forbade men entrée into their exclusive domain, on the grounds of man's innate, clodhopping destructiveness in the presence of glassware and china.

The neighboring towns (Monkslip-super-Mare, Staincross Minster), the shops and local businesses (my favorite is the used book store called The Onlie Begetter) and even the characters' names (Jasper Batton-Smythe, Constable Musteille, Elka Garth) all evoke the flavor of those well-loved vintage detective novels of the past century. Yet the people and the story are far from old-fashioned. The internet exists here, is inescapable perhaps, and has allowed many of the local shopkeepers to survive by extending their business beyond the tiny village when they might otherwise have failed had they relied only on the locals. The young people are hip and trendy in their appearance and attitudes and their elders are trying to keep up with them.  Even the oldest member of the community Agnes Pitchford, gossip extraordinaire, manages to pick up on some subtle modern behavior that will be crucial to the solution of the murder.

The book itself is well designed and in itself a homage to the mystery novels of the 1920s and 1930s. There are beautifully detailed endpaper maps (a color version taken from Malliet's website appears above), a list of the main characters with brief descriptions of each, and a table of contents with chapter titles. I've always wondered why the Louise Penny books (also published by Minotaur Books) have never had a map of Three Pines on the endpapers. In Malliet's case it's just perfect. All of these elements added to the intricate story of Wanda's murder reminded me of so many village murder mysteries of the past, but in particular The Bolt by P.R. Shore with which it shares many characteristics from the lead character to the victim to the book design itself.

Author photo © by Joe Henson
Look no further for one of the leading contenders for nearly everyone mystery novel award that's out there. Wicked Autumn is sure to be nominated for many of them and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Malliet won at least one of those awards. I'm not one for making predictions, but I believe Wicked Autumn is a shoo-in for next year's Agatha. Remember: you read it here first.

For more about the origins and creation of Wicked Autumn see this excellent article by G. M. Malliet at the blog "Jungle Red" and do make sure to visit her website where there is an cleverly designed interactive map of Nether Monkslip.


  1. Heard good things about this author, but I stayed away precisely of comparisons in the "If you like Agatha Christie, you'll LOVE so-and-so" or "Move over, Miss Marple! Make way for this-and-that!" vein.

    This article is quite encouraging, though. I'll keep it in mind- maybe I can get ahold of an audiobook once I'm done with my current audiobook read. It's a pain in the derriere and listen through, but if I can get through one Spillane, two Chandlers, and two George Baxts in the same year, I think I can handle any mean-spirited piece of garbage the post-modernists throw at me. (Help!)

    At least I get paid for it since I can do it on the job. :)

  2. I'm picking this up at the library this week, John. Requested it a few days ago.

    I'm just in the mood for this kind of book.

    John, did you recommend the Captain Heimrich book by the Lockridges?

    I'm reading that now. :)

  3. Patrick -

    Malliet's book is not mean spirited at all. "Sardonic tone" in this case does not translate to mean-spirited. (Were you even calling her book mean-spirited? I couldn't tell.) There are several sections that are rather poignant in fact - the entire chapter about the major after his wife's death for example. And there are other parts of the book that raise it above the usual contemporary crime novel even if it does include the obligatory back story about Max Tudor (he's ex-MI5) portions that I'm sure you'll skip over if you decide to read this book. That's the only part of the book I could have done without.

  4. Yvette -

    I'm not a Lockrdige fan. So it wasn't me who recommended that one.

    You'll really enjoy this book, I'm sure. I'm a bit effusive and perhaps hyperbolic in my praise, but I mean every word of it.

  5. John, I wasn't referring to Malliet's book but to an audiobook I'm listening to now, "The Act of Roger Murgatroyd". The author is pretending he knows everything there is to know about Agatha Christie and her style of writing, but he's just turning out a mean-spirited piece of trash thus far.

    I adore that map, incidentally! I love maps in general, and I sometimes wish GAD novels had as many maps as critics often pretend they do. You'd think that every book written between the world wars had a map of the crime scene...

  6. John: I love effusive and hyperbolic. :)