Crime at Christmas

Quite a lot of people enjoy reading novels set in the place where they're currently holidaying (including me). Quite a few also enjoy seasonal reading. I certainly like reading the odd book in the run-up to Christmas that has a suitably festive setting. I thought that G.M. Malliet's A fatal winter was going to be a seasonal read, and it certainly was - opening at the start of December and culminating on the shortest day.

A fatal winter is the second novel in the Max Tudor series. I hadn't read the first, and I don't think this was a problem. Any backstory related far more to Max's life prior to the series than anything that had happened in novel 1.

To start with, I wasn't convinced that I was going to enjoy it. It opens as a very light read, rather in the style of The cat who... series. Not that there's anything wrong with that series, it's light and enjoyable - one of my favourite guilty pleasures, but lacks any depth and ultimately is a bit of a throwaway read. The crime plot tends to be secondary to the tweeness, and is usually fairly far-fetched. It's a fun read for a rainy day, but doesn't satisfy a crime fiction lover's soul. This is what I thought A fatal winter was going to be.

Set in an English village where (in the best tradition of British romantic drama) it always snows in winter, everyone is very nice and polite to each other, and there is a wildly handsome man and a very pretty woman who are, of course, madly in love. Wildly handsome man is the vicar, Max Tudor, who has had a shady past as a member of MI5 - a career that, surprisingly, he seems astonishingly willing to talk about to whoever wants to talk about it (whatever happened to the Official Secrets Act?).

The local lord of the manor is murdered, and his twin sister found dead close by. The police are called in, but (in the best traditions of Murder she wrote) are unable to cope with either the murder or the group of aristocratic suspects who are incarcerated at the castle, so of course Max Tudor is called in. All in all, I was finding it a pretty irritating read. Malliet was entertaining enough, but the Downton Abbey halo around the aristocracy, and the British Fairyland setting owed more to a non-Brit's idealistic dream of Britain than any reality. I was going to give up on the novel, but then.....I realised that it was actually rather good.

The crime itself is very well plotted. It's one of the very few crime novels where I can honestly say I didn't guess who the murderer was the very end. As the novel progressed and became darker and more serious, it became impossible to put down. It's very well constructed, an extremely clever crime, and the frothy light outer edges of the novel make the darkness at the centre more pronounced. If the light opening had irritated me, the light ending was a welcome return to joy after the dark passage of the middle.

It's not one of the great crime novels of all time, but there's much to be enjoyed in this novel, there is some cracking writing, and I certainly look forward to reading more of G.M. Malliet's novels.


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