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It’s a Mystery: “Loyalty is a distorting mirror”

By (April 1, 2017) No Comment

Devil’s Breath
By G.M. Malliet
Minotaur, 2017

Earthly Remains
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017

Devil’s Breath is the sixth novel in G.M. Malliet’s award-winning series featuring the Reverend Maxen “Max” Tudor. The “dishy” former MI5 agent and now English village priest, Father Max was introduced in Wicked Autumn (2011). He is vicar of St. Edwold’s (one of three joined parishes) in the village of Nether Monkslip. It’s a place reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. In fact, a friendly police colleague of Max’s calls him: “A regular Miss Marple in Holy Orders.” But Nether Monkslip is no village that time forgot—not with its new age citizenry and a handsome vicar who’s an ex-spy.

Max Tudor had trained for the priesthood at Oxford after years spent in the clandestine spook world. Like le Carré, he had been recruited for Britain’s counter-intelligence service while an undergraduate at Oxford:

He’d been chosen not only for his obvious intelligence and self-possession but for a certain quality of awareness—a cognizance hard to define, but once seen, not forgotten: a quality essential for a spy.

Max was a stellar operative and became “their undercover superstar”—until the violent death of a friend and colleague drove him to a breaking point and he tendered his resignation to Five, as insiders call it.

He had seen it all, witnessed too much…So began his surrender to feeling rather than to thought as he joined the dwindling ranks of men and women who saw the church as an avenue of peaceful change…. In his duties as the Anglican priest for his tiny parish, the things that only he could do were endless…

By the time of the fifth Tudor novel, The Haunted Season (2015), Max’s past has returned with a vengeance. It threatens the happiness he enjoys with his beautiful wife Awena and their baby son Owen. (Their romance blossomed in Pagan Spring, 2013). In trying to escape the violence of his former life, he inadvertently puts Awena at risk. She almost dies. To keep his family out of harm’s way, Max must painfully acknowledge that there is no way out for him. He offers his services to Five on an as-needed basis, again bringing to mind le Carré’s maxim: “Once you’ve been inside the secret tent, you never really leave it.”

The call from Five comes all too soon in Devil’s Breath. As the novel opens, the yacht the Calypso Facto, owned by the famous film director Romero Farnier, is moored at Monkslip-super-Mare, a larger village close to Max’s Nether Monkslip. This floating luxury hotel has a cast of characters the likes of which were often found in movies and novels taking place on the fabled Orient Express in its heyday. When the body of one of them, the glamorous movie star Margot Browne, washes ashore, Max and his partner in crime solving, DCI Cotton, are on the case. As is Max’s former colleague and ex-lover, a heavily pregnant Patrice Logan. She was operating undercover on the yacht at the behest of Five to ferret out an international drug smuggling operation of major proportions. Now, with Five’s blessing, she enlists Max’s help.

As Max digs deeper into Margot’s death, he finds a plethora of skeletons in her many closets. They connect her in nefarious ways to more than one person currently on the yacht. It’s a perfect “closed circle” of suspects who might have thrown the ageing star overboard: screenwriters, actors, a baron and baroness who are definitely ersatz, and a chef and sous chef who are into more than gourmet food.

Max talks daily on the phone to Awena in Nether Monskslip. She is his sounding board as well as his soul mate. She’s currently filming a new segment for her wildly popular organic cooking series on the BBC: The Pagan Vegan. She is a thoroughly modern Julia Child and among foodies her show reinforced “foraging” as their new catchphrase:

Even a visit to the local market these days was considered foraging, of course, but for those with a real passion for all-natural everything, Awena’s show was can’t-miss viewing…with advertisers queuing for airtime, and with concomitant offers for publishing contracts and guest appearances.

Awena, being Awena, balances it all with aplomb. In his latest conversation with her, she gives him food for thought, so to speak, when they start talking about the murder. He mentions Maurice Brandon, the hair and makeup stylist who Max observes may be the only one who cared about Margot. According to Awena he’s known simply as Maurice in the top echelons of tinsel town:

He’s probably the world’s most famous stylist….They call him the Miracle Worker. Believe me, most of those performers without makeup don’t even look like the same person. It’s more than that, though: he’s their confidant….He really does know where all the bodies are buried in the Hollywood Hills but he will never tell all or sell out.

Max suspected that Awena was telling him all this for a reason. “Are you saying he would keep these women’s secrets, even during a police investigation?”

“Men’s and women’s,” she corrected. “He styles both sexes. But yes, he probably
would…. He really is the soul of discretion, known for his integrity..”

“That’s exactly the sort of behavior that can earn you lots of attendees at your own funeral…. It is commendable he has such integrity but if he’s keeping something back, it’s dangerous for him and for everyone.

Words that come back to haunt him. By the time it’s a wrap, as they say in the biz, it’s more than a movie, it’s real life with a wow finish.

Devil’s Breath, like all of Malliet’s novels, has clever plotting, entertaining characters, stylish settings, and a deliciously unorthodox view of the human condition. Plus its laced with wickedly wry humor. You won’t want to miss this series.

Earthly Remains, Donna Leon’s 26th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery (after 2016’s The Waters of Eternal Youth) finds the Venetian policeman in a funk. Midlife crisis, undue stress, abnormal fatigue, a need to get away from the daily grind—all of the above, as it happens. Plus an intangible sense of malaise. It’s an emotional state that causes Brunetti to indulge in uncharacteristically impulsive behavior during an unpleasant interrogation. This earns him a two-week leave of absence. Now, where to spend it?

His wonderful wife Paola has a suggestion. Her family owns a villa on Sant’Erasmo, an island on the far end of the laguna. The custodian and his family live in the gardener’s house on the property and keep the main one ready for visitors. Paola, in her infinite wisdom, also makes it clear that he should spend this time alone, unencumbered, as it were, by family.

Arrangements are made and Brunettti, armed with the bare necessities (that for him means four books including his revered Pliny), is off to his in-law’s distant casa by the sea:

…he’d leave all thought of work behind…if imperiled by some unknown terror from the sea, he’d beat it back with his single oar and then return to his bachelor home and cook the fish he’d caught that morning, eat it with a glass of local wine, then sit in the dimming light with a small glass of grappa while he listened to the chatter of marsh birds as they prepared themselves for sleep, and then go and do the same himself, the dreamless sleep that comes of sunlight, simplicity, and long hours rowing under the sun.

Brunetti and Davide Casati, the custodian and keeper of bees, hit it off beautifully. Turns out Casati has a meaningful connection to Brunetti’s father via his rowing. Casati shares with Brunetti his concerns that his bees are dying though plays it close to the vest as to why. Then Davide disappears and Brunetti in cop mode leads the search.

He finds the body, which leads to unimaginable revelations. Casati’s past propels Brunetti into the presence of two despicable old men living in the lap of luxury who have a lot to answer for.

The driving force behind this novel are the environmental abuses that threaten Venice and, by implication, most of the earth. No surprise, corruption and human greed are at the heart of it all.
Brunetti emerges as a man who is torn between what is right and what is expedient. Surface is what we see, but underneath the shining veneer of the lagoon is rot.

In the end, as Brunetti and his colleague are trying to sort it all out with Casati’s daughter, Leon nails it:

They sat in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that had been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to try to pay the heating bill.

Earthly Remains stays with you long after it ends. Brunetti’s frailties, so eloquently drawn, turn us inside out and remind us that we must live with all our choices, good and bad.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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