Wednesday, December 21, 2011

G.M. Malliet's Death and the Lit Chick & Death at the Alma Mater

G.M. Malliet,
     Death and the Lit Chick, 2009
     Death at the Alma Mater, 2010

I haven't blogged promptly about these two: in fact, I renewed them so they could stare at me and make me blog about them, but they're now overdue. Not a habit to get into! They both continue on from Death of a Cozy Writer, with the further investigations of Detective Chief Inspector St. Just, a worthy and capable protagonist for the genre.

In Death and the Lit Chick, St. Just finds himself at a castle in Scotland, offering a workshop at a crime-writers' conference about evidentiary procedure and the like. He finds himself with a crush on one of the writers, only to have her (and the rest of the weird lot) become suspects when one of the authors is murdered while the castle's drawbridge is up — the locked-room mystery writ Gothic. Malliet does a terrific job at describing St. Just's fascination with Portia De'Ath: it's a very well written capturing of a first blush of feelings. The mystery itself is decent, but not overly remarkable: odd relationships and details typical of castles and of CSI help an okay plot along to a forgettable conclusion, complete with all the suspects gathered in the Great Room for the great detective's explication of the crime. (The addition of DCI Ian Moor, the detective in charge of the investigation, is a nice touch to St. Just — we actually get someone who is St. Just's equal, and pleasantly funny to boot.

Death at the Alma Mater is more tightly plotted but less plausible. Summoned to a Cambridge college, St. Just finds himself investigating an odd gaggle of alumni from whom the college is trying to raise a pretty penny. The murder of one of their number prompts an investigation that leads St. Just off at weird angles before finally seeing through an overly-complicated scheme and nabbing the murderer.

I'm going to keep reading Malliet's mysteries, as her writing is certainly entertaining. It has a piece I need missing, though. I enjoy the way she plays with the unities of place and time (a manor house, a castle, a college, a village; a weekend, a conference, a weekend, a fair), but there's a failure in the effort to break through the conventions that I have trouble getting past. In the St. Just series, we watch as she gathers her overly weird suspects to traditional venues for a murder. She bumps off one or more of the cast, and we move through the investigation. Each time, I've waited for the turn, the new take on the convention--and on the times it has come, it has been too slight an innovation or too weak a new look. There's such potential that never quite offers something new. I also struggle with the characters: while some, like St. Just, De'Ath, and Sgt. Fear, are well developed, too many of the others are given a quick sketch and that's all we're given to understand them: Malliet doesn't write Russian novels, but I still needed her character list because I simply wasn't motivated by the writing to tell a couple of characters apart in each of the stories. The newer Wicked Autumn shows improvement on that score, but with too trite and poorly developed a conclusion to be called a great murder-mystery.

I will gladly read her next book, as I do enjoy her work. I wish I could enjoy it just a bit more.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I wish I had read Dorothy Sayers' Wimsey mysteries before Malliet--in retrospect, I wonder now at how much Death at the Alma Mater is an homage to Gaudy Night.