by Sharon Tucker
Prior to reading Hazel Holt’s Mrs. Malory mysteries, it hadn’t particularly occurred to me that literary critics would make first rate detectives. It does make sense though if you consider that critics “pluck out the heart” of a writer’s mystery as a matter of course. Critics have a discerning intelligence that would prove invaluable to the police and private detectives as would understanding motivations, analyzing character and making logical inferences.
Mrs. Sheila Mallory does the above in each of her twenty one forays into investigation but oddly enough, she doesn’t see herself as a detective. She says of herself that she just likes finding things out and no one in the novels ever refers to her as an amateur detective. Recently widowed and mother of a law student currently at Oxford as the series begins, she has a small private income which keeps her free to work at her own pace writing critiques of Victorian novels and novelists. These haven’t made her rich but are well received by the literary community despite the fact that she is not an academic.
She doesn’t work with the police particularly, but she is acquainted with one very good local Yorkshire detective inspector who is thoroughly likable and better at his job than most, but neither seems to get in the other’s way. She doesn’t set out to solve a mystery or discover a perpetrator per se, but something invariably happens to a friend or acquaintance that causes her to take time out from her 19th century authors and start a chain of events that lead Mrs. Malory to ask questions and find answers. “Good works” are part of her daily life and take the usual form of committee work allied with church functions, so she also has her finger on the pulse of the community in an unobtrusive way, quite a handy lead into the problems of her parish.
Gone Away (2010, 1989), the first Mrs. Malory novel, concerns the missing fiancé of one of Sheila Malory’s oldest friends, a local lad who made good and has become an American magnate. The fiancée, Lee Montgomery, is an estate agent intent upon marrying Charles Richardson, the aforementioned magnate, for his money. Richardson’s friends in Taviscombe, Yorkshire, cannot seem to warm to the woman despite her “chic-ness” and comradely attitude, so when she disappears on a business trip everyone guiltily feels that its good riddance except Richardson. He implores that Mrs. Malory look into what has happened since she is ideally placed to ask locals who worked with or for the missing woman. What follows is a look into village life that makes moving to England and living in a small seaside town most attractive –”Broadchurch” and the occasional missing person notwithstanding.
The beginning of The Shortest Journey (2010, 1994), the third in the series finds Mrs. Mallory visiting one of her older contemporaries in West Lodge, one of the finest nursing homes in Taviscombe. Their conversation naturally leads to mutual friends also housed in West Lodge, particularly to Mrs. Edith Rossiter whose children continually plague her for money and Power of Attorney, even going so far as to begin to hint that their mother is not quite capable of making good judgements any more. When Mrs. Rossiter goes shopping one afternoon and does not come back, Mrs. Mallory suspects her children may have had a hand in her vanishing largely due to the fact that Mrs. Rossiter has always been dominated by her family who have never cared for her happiness, only their own. Evidence accrues pointing to suicide, but Mrs. Mallory cannot credit that her friend ended her own life and wonders if she may have left clues to another solution to the mystery entirely.
Number five in the series, Murder on Campus (2011, 1994) finds Mrs. Malory leaving Taviscombe for the United States. She’s been offered a seminar in her specialty to teach at Wilmot College in Pennsylvania through the effort of two of her British friends currently teaching and working at Wilmot. A pleasant foray into academic life turns into a murder investigation when a body is discovered in an unlikely place and even though far from her home ground, Mrs. M gets involved in the investigation at the request of the lead investigator in the case, Lt. Landis. It seems that at Wilmot, she is as valuable for her outsider impressions as she is in Taviscombe for her insider knowledge. Inquiries prove that the victim was as despicable as the local police lieutenant is delightful and unless Mrs. Mallory is careful, she will find herself beginning a long distance relationship when the investigation is closed.
Be aware that her novels are in reprint and the new American editions have titles that differ from the originals. I have used the titles of the reprints here simply because they might be more readily available. The novels are intelligently written and utterly unfussy. As you read them, since Holt writes in firsst person, you’ll feel involved in the action and will be acutely interested in how matters unfold. They are “slowish” paced, but the time moves pleasantly and Holt has a knack for surprising her readers. I’m so glad that I have only begun reading the list and have more than a dozen yet to read.
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