Top critical review
One for American enthusiasts of Golden Age British detective stories?
on 18 May 2016
G. M. Malliet is an American author of traditional ‘Golden Age’ murder mysteries. Lovers of gentle stories may find this an enjoyable read, although the characterisation is basic and the Cambridge setting is drawn from the author’s studies there. Frequently the insertion of information, for example, about rowing which impinges on the plot, is done in such a way as to bring the development of the story to a stop.
This is the third and final book in the series featuring DCI Arthur St. Just, his uninspired colleague Sergeant Fear and girlfriend Portia De’ath, who is supposed to be completing her thesis at St Michael’s but much prefers writing mysteries. If an author populates a novel with characters whimsically named Lexy Laurant, Gwennap Pengelly, Hermione Jax, the pathologist Dr Malenfent, Augie Cramb, William Trinity and Mary Goose then hopes that their descriptions add extra dimensions and do not just offer stereotypical caricatures.
A group of well-heeled graduates of the somewhat impoverished St Michael’s College have been invited back by the Master for a weekend that, he hopes, will culminate in a series of large cheques being handed over to the College authorities. The group, who were studying in the late 1980s, include the literary knight Sir James Bassett, his wife India, the celebrity crime reporter Pengelly, the withdrawn American financier Karl Dunning and his whinging wife Constance, Texan dot-com millionaire Cramb and Geraldo Valentiano, who insists he is not a gigolo, and escorts the sexy Lexy. The latter and Sir James met, married and divorced whilst at Cambridge so their presence within the group might be expected to cause fireworks.
A body is found next to the boathouse and through a process of largely interviewing suspects [and repeatedly asking them what their impressions are of one another], St Just unmasks the killer in front of the whole group in a rather sub-standard Agatha Christie setting. St Just, although attractive to every woman who meets him, is no Poirot and the plot fails to give him much in the way of credibility or support.
The revelation about the murder is preposterous which might not matter if the writing had been more engaging. The characters bump into one another in a series of twos and threes and exchange rather unconvincing dialogue – the kind of dialogue that an American might put in the mouths of representatives of English classes. Unfortunately she puts even more unconvincing Americanisms into the mouth of her Texan millionaire [‘But there was no beef in that taco, no sirree. No huevos in that ranchero.’]. This is all the more surprising given that the book was first published in the USA [which explains the Americanisms that initially surprised me].
The three St Just novels and, thereafter, the five Max Tudor books have appeared annually since 2008. This might suggest that not a great deal of effort goes into them and/or that, having written three books about St Just, Ms Malliett has little more to say about him and his colleagues. This is perhaps supported by reviewers who found the first two books better – the first, ‘Death of a Cozy Writer’, won the 2008 Agatha Award for the Best First Novel. As with most books of this sub-genre, a map [of the rear grounds of the college] is provided but this makes not one iota of difference.
The author clearly writes with a great deal of affection for the Golden Age of British murder mysteries, but too often it feels that she is just going through the motions. There are enough sparkles to convince the reader that the author has considerable talents but, rather like Sir James’s rower son, she needs to stir herself more.
This would be a reasonable read for a very relaxing holiday or, as in my case, the final book in a selection of 3 for £1 at a charity shop.