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|
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.