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by G.M. Malliet
Minotaur Books, October 2013
287 pages
ISBN: 1250021405

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The small village of Nether Monkslip has proven to be quite the violent place for Vicar Max Tudor, who anticipated that his move into the clergy would prove less eventful than his days in MI5, as evidenced by the events of WICKED AUTUMN and A FATAL WINTER. Author G.M. Malliet's third entry in her seasonally-themed Max Tudor series is an apparent attempt to flirt with slightly more serious territory than the previous entries and succeeds fairly well in that endeavor, and as a traditional mystery, PAGAN SPRING is an unqualified success.

After the bloodshed of his previous adventures, Max Tudor is finally on track. He is not quite engaged to, though contentedly in love with, local shop owner and naturalist free-spirit Awena Owen and he has come to appreciate that his small village is a revolving door of drama and dysfunction. Yet when the town's newest, and perhaps most despicable, resident - retired stage actor, famous womanizer, and all-around grump Thaddeus Bottle - is found dead in mysterious circumstances, the immediate suspicion falls upon his tortured, but adulterous wife Melinda and Max joins DCI Cotton to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The title of this presumably penultimate entry in this series refers to an ancient site of pagan rituals, but seems to exist only to give the book a catchy, seasonally appropriate title; nevertheless, the mystery is well-constructed and shows Malliet's progress as an author. Awena Owen, whose budding romance with Max has helped the series move along at key points, is absent from much of the novel, but she remains a presence throughout. Malliet also employs an email-based narrative between chapters that is refreshing to see in the sort of book that normally shuns the presence of technology. It provides a bit of clever misdirection. While spring does not provide the natural backdrop for murder and intrigue that autumn and winter does, PAGAN SPRING proves to be a compelling read, though the "Cabot Cove problem" of too many murders in too small a place does crop up in the reader's mind by the end of this third book in the series.

Malliet has made a career of perfecting the traditional mystery that goes beyond the unfortunate trend of modern cozies to be entirely too cute and self-contented; instead she has a rather sharp sense of humor and a literary sensibility that serves as a nostalgic reminder of the best of Golden Age detective fiction. Starting with the St. Just Series (DEATH OF A COZY WRITER) and into the Max Tudor series she has shown continual progress as an author, exhibiting more daring characters and subject matter with each book. With her latest, she attempts to go deeper with darker motives and history than one normally finds in a village cozy but tying the events in Nether Monkslip to secrets dating back to the second World War is a bit of stretch and seems rather forced; but one hopes that it suggests that Malliet will be delving into more serious territory in future mysteries.

With PAGAN SPRING for perhaps the first time in the Max Tudor series there seem to be serious consequences on the horizon for Max and the other members of the village. By the end of the novel, several lives have been threatened, the darker elements of life outside the village have come to the forefront, and Max's personal and professional lives are both on quite thin ice. While the book does stumble at times, it manages to both be ambitious and a wholly satisfying mystery and the reader puts down the book eagerly awaiting what Malliet will do next.

Ben Neal is a librarian who likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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