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Murder Most Amusing? Malliet Masters Malice.

G.M. Malliet

Is it his children’s greedy panic about Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk’s impending marriage that leads to murder at Waverly Court? Or do other forces drive someone to kill? Twice. As redoubtable Cambridgeshire Detective Chief Inspector Arthur St. Just — “tall, well built, handsome” — observes of the Beauclerk-Fisk clan in Death of a Cozy Writer, “Nothing in this crowd would surprise me.”

Cover of Death of a Cozy Writer

Surprise as well as delight epitomize G.M. Malliet’s writing in Death of a Cozy Writer, Death and the Lit Chick and Death at the Alma Mater, all published within the past two years. With a distinctively droll voice, Malliet pays homage to the tradition of British mystery doyennes Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers — off-stage murder, red herrings galore and clear-eyed observation of the human species at its worst — while gently sending up the genre with wit and erudition that make reading her books fun and rereading them even better.

Malliet, who was a CUA graduate student in the 1980s, confesses to an early and ongoing interest in mystery. “Nancy Drew. Agatha Christie. Dorothy Sayers,” she muses. “I love the mystery format, the puzzle. Agatha Christie — she’s my model, my hero.”

Christie could have no better heir than Malliet, who delineates character quickly through apt metaphors, deftly chosen verbs and dialogue that expresses more than it says, as in this exchange between Sir Adrian and his American secretary, Jeffrey Spencer, in Death of a Cozy Writer:

What is it?” Sir Adrian demanded now. The secretary, for it was he, flashed him a blinding white smile, displaying the results of a lifetime of proper oral hygiene.

“Just popped in to give you the latest pages, and to ask if you’ve any more for me to be getting on with, what?”

Another of Jeffrey Spencer’s many, many annoying mannerisms, to Sir Adrian’s mind, was his adoption of what he hoped was a British accent complete with British slang and figures of speech. Sir Adrian, when in the mood, reacted to this by slinging back as much American speech as he could recall from his telly viewing.

“Nope, Jeff,” he said now. “Reckon I’ll hang on to these here pages a mite longer, pardner. But you can mosey on down t’store yonder and fetch me some of this here special ink fer the inkwell. I’ve done tuckered it all out.”

As Malliet describes the arrival of Sir Adrian’s children, Ruthven, George (and his beautiful girlfriend, Natasha), Sarah and Albert, at Waverly Court, the falseness of the family heritage and butler Paulo’s disdain are evident:

“The front door beneath an ill-proportioned pediment had an impressive coat of arms carved into its tympanum — lions and griffins rampant among towers and flowers. This door now flung open to reveal a Heathcliffe-type figure in butler’s uniform: Brooding, dark, unfriendly, he observed them as they hauled their assorted belongings out of their assorted car boots. It was Paulo, needing only a knife clenched between his teeth to complete the image of menacing hostility. Sarah noticed he made no move to assist anyone but Natasha, who à la Grace Kelly in Rear Window, seemed to be making do with a tiny makeup case, while Sarah herself struggled with an overpacked valise.”

Death and the Lit Chick

Cover of Death and the Lit Chick

The suspects in Cozy Writer hover, skulk, slouch, clump, glide and calculate. In Lit Chick, Malliet’s second book, actions are more literary but no less deadly. Gathered at Dalmorton Castle in Scotland for a conference to honor young blockbuster writer Kimberlee Kalder are jealous fellow writers, zealous would-be writers, competing agents and publishers, and a husband no one knew about, as well as Detective Chief Inspector St. Just, there to address the group of mystery writers on police procedure. He cringes to find his talk described in the promotional brochure as being about “nabbing the baddies. Hold your fire as he fires off tales of his most famous nabs.” The ever-understated St. Just wonders, “Who do they think I am? Eliot Ness?”

Arriving at the gloomy castle, “gray and austere, its dark drum tower and arrow-slit turrets starkly outlined against a blue-moonstone sky,” lovely criminologist/writer Portia De’Ath waves away her uneasy feeling, reasoning, “Really, what were the odds that anyone would actually be murdered at a gathering of murder mystery writers, when you really thought about it?” That evening, Kimberlee ends up at the bottom of a dungeon, quite dead.

Death at the Alma Mater

Cover of Death at the Alma Mater

As St. Just begins his investigation in Lit Chick, Portia De’Ath cautions him to remember that these are people who have made their living by telling lies. By the third book of the series, Death at the Alma Mater, published this year, De’Ath and St. Just have become a couple, occasionally taking up a glass of champagne in her rooms at St. Michael’s College, University of Cambridge.

In the novel, De’Ath has the misfortune to be stuck on campus for a weekend reunion of successful alumni who were students in 1988. They’ve been invited back by Dr. D.X.L. Marburger, the college master. He’s hoping for big donations from the very wealthy members, but instead gets major headaches when sexy Lexy Laurant, jilted wife of author and fellow alum Sir James Bassett, is found dead beside the college’s boathouse. With Portia nearby, St. Just traces tangled relationships to reason out who killed Lexy.

How Did She Get Here?

Malliet reminds one of De’Ath, tastefully dressed, self-possessed and quietly observant. What’s this thoughtful, quiet woman doing writing about murder?

“I’m interested in the dynamics that would lead one human being to be so desperate or so greedy or whatever — revengeful — to kill another human being,” she says. “That’s why the mystery form is so satisfying to a writer. It is the ultimate crime; there is no worse.”

The unfinished manuscript for Death of a Cozy Writer lay in a drawer until Malliet entered the first three chapters into a grant competition for unpublished works sponsored by Malice Domestic, a mystery writer’s organization located in the Washington, D.C., area. She won the $1,500 grant in 2003.

“It was terribly exciting,” she says, “and just the impetus I needed to finish the book.” Then, without an agent — “Never do that except as a last resort!” she advises — she searched for a publisher. Midnight Ink, one of the few publishers to read unsolicited manuscripts, agreed to take the book on. Good bet: Death of A Cozy Writer went on to win the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, a Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2008 citation and an Independent Publisher Book Award.

Malliet’s characters are well served by her M.A. in organizational psychology from CUA and M.Phil. (also in psychology) from Cambridge, an undergraduate degree in journalism, as well as years spent in England. Her entertaining, fly-on-the-wall reporting captures the dynamics — often dysfunctional — of relationships between all kinds of people, from St. Just’s exchanges with his down-to-earth sidekick Sergeant Fear to the deadliest of sibling rivalries.

Now, as Malliet begins writing a series of novels for Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books, readers can look forward to meeting a new protagonist, Max Tudor, a former MI5 secret agent who has become an Anglican vicar in a small English village, hoping to leave his violent past behind. The chances of that? “Well,” says Malliet. “In the first book, a member of his parish is murdered ...” — C.C.