There's a reason retired MI5 agent Max Tudor is now a village vicar in the tiny hamlet of Nether Monkslip. There was a time and place for his former life of adventure and espionage, a period in his past when tracking down criminals and terrorist threats was his only calling. But then a horrific accident changed everything forever and now he's perfectly happy to mentor and minister provincial types on matters of faith. So it's something of a minor inconvenience when one of his congregation is found stabbed to death at the Harvest Fayre and Max finds himself in the middle of a murder case. Granted, the victim was one of his less popular parishioners. Wanda Batton-Smythe, the mean, bossy leader of the Women's Institute of Nether Monkslip was most certainly not very well-liked. With a penchant for inciting fear and exposing weakness in seemingly every acquaintance she ever made (even her husband, a former Army Major, seems thoroughly cowed under his wife's authoritarian demeanor), Wanda was a woman which more than a few townspeople might've enjoyed ridding themselves of. But when the two detectives from the county's police task force arrive on the scene, no one seems remotely interested in giving evidence. It's even difficult for Max, operating behind the scenes, to surmise on a possible suspect. Wanda's enemies, though plentiful, aren't so aggressive that they'd attempt any kind of physical assault. And then to kill her?
Agatha award winner Malliet brings the goods in this cozy mystery which even includes a fold-out map of the village in the binding. Quirky characters and sequences are given mileage by a hefty dose of metaphorical inserts ("her voice filling the room like a sonic gun", "her hair clipped short around protuberant ears, she resembled a Chihauhua puppy abandoned in a snowdrift" or "the woman stared at the cover like Queen Victoria being handed a pamphlet on early contraceptive techniques"). Not that it's unwelcome or even misplaced. Malliet knows how to write cozy. Which is to say she writes with a splendid sort of moderation, a perfect blend of comically cute descriptions and indelibly charming technique. Readers will enjoy the author's take on village life and its colorful individuals while at the same time won't be lulled into boredom by predictable circumstances. Max Tudor is the right kind of protagonist to confront such surroundings, an outsider who's understandably been converted to domestic small town life and yet remains an introspective, spiritual man keen on the deeper elements of human nature. That he's a handsome eligible bachelor amid the cooing eyes of all the available parish women makes things even more interesting. (MYS MALLIET)