The Cozy Mystery Flop: A Review

I love cozy mysteries. Especially English cozies. This may be because I started with Agatha Christie—I tell a lie, it was actually Nancy Drew, so there goes that theory.

Anyway, I like the whole tea-and-crumpets thing. And I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so when someone teddibly, teddibly English narrates, like Davina Porter or Simon Vance, I feel fully immersed in jolly old Blighty.

But they have to be well plotted, too. Really, the core of a mystery is its plot. A mystery is a contract between the author and the reader. The author promises not to spring the solution to the mystery on the reader without first hinting at it or making the critical information known to the reader. The author’s skill is in disguising the information in such a way that the reader never guesses, or is at best unsure until the end. Like many mystery readers, I love to try to figure out the solution before the author reveals it—but I don’t want it to be obvious, either.

In the end, the reader has to be able either say proudly, “I figured it out, but it wasn’t easy,” or, “I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.” Either way, it has to be a satisfactory end that explains all loose ends and does not defy the laws of reality as we know them.

A few years ago, I stumbled across G.M. Malliet’s mystery series about life in Nether Monkslip, an isolated English country village. The star is an Anglican priest, Max Tudor, an ex-M15 agent who wearied of the life of a spy and went into the god-bothering business. Being an Anglican priest, he gets to have a love life, too. The object of his affections is Rowena, the hippy-dippy owner of the village pagan/spiritual/wicca shop. I’ll just say they are a fun couple.

I adored the series, but soon read all of the existing books, so I picked up another mystery by Malliet, this time with her Detective Inspector St. Just. The first two books were not as enthralling as the Max Tudor stories, but good enough that I purchased a third, “Death at the Alma Mater.”

There are spoilers from this point forward, so please stop reading now if you intend to read “Death at the Alma Mater.”

The story takes place at the fictional St. Michael’s College of Cambridge University. The college hosts a weekend get-together for Old Boys and Girls, and they invite only the wealthiest alums because the intention is to dun them for seriously large donations. One of the guests is gorgeous and wealthy Lexy Laurent, who is famous for being famous, her ex-husband, Sir James Bellows, and his wife India, who took James away from Lexy after only three years of marriage.

It is 20 years after the graduation of these Old Boys and Girls, yet Lexy is believed to still have an obsession with Sir James. When Lexy turns up dead by the boathouse, the fun begins.

I won’t expose the entire plot, but what is supposed to have happened is that James, a writer, had published an early novel that promptly sank from view without notice. He casually gifted his then-wife, Lexy, with the rights to this novel, never thinking it would ever be worth anything. (We don’t know this detail until the exposition at the end.) Lo and behold, the novel develops a cult following and then becomes an overnight best seller years later. Movie deals are being discussed. James, knowing that Lexy will be at the reunion, asks for the rights back. Lexy, having finally reduced her passion for James to ashes, refuses. James pretends it’s no big deal, but plots her murder during the reunion at St. Mike’s.

He carries out the murder near the college boathouse before dinner. After dinner, he is seen by several people having a serious chat with Lexy in the garden. In truth, “Lexy” is a plastic blow-up doll with a Lexy wig on (she’s famous, remember?), wearing an academic robe. This is supposed to establish that Lexy was alive, though in fact she has been dead for a few hours. This gives James an alibi, as he is careful to be within sight of the other guests until the body is discovered.

This is where G.M. Malliet and I parted company. I just didn’t believe a disguised plastic blow-up doll, even if seen only from the back, could pass as a human being. And the jiggery-pokery of blowing up the doll, dressing it, moving it, making sure people saw it but that no one got close enough to see that it wasn’t Lexy, and then somehow getting it out of there without anyone seeing either him or the doll—nah. I became unwilling to suspend my disbelief. (I mean, have you SEEN one of those dolls?)

The other major point is that James killed Lexy for the rights to his book. It was never mentioned that Lexy might have a valid will leaving everything to the Orphaned Hedgehog Home or something. The ex-husband certainly would not be handed the rights back if he were not specifically granted those rights in the will. So it would have been all for nothing.

I can only recommend the St. Just series with muted enthusiasm, and “Death at the Alma Mater” not at all. However, I most heartily recommend all the Max Tudor books. They are everything English cozy mysteries should be, and satisfying reads, every one.

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