“G. M. Malliet has crafted the English village of our dreams.” Charlaine Harris
Agatha Award-winning author G. M. Malliet has charmed mystery lovers, cozy fans, and Agatha Christie devotees with her critically acclaimed mysteries, and this newest one featuring handsome spy-turned-cleric Max Tudor won’t disappoint.
Newly returned from investigating a murder in Monkslip-super-Mare, handsome Max Tudor wants nothing more than to settle back into his predictable routine as vicar of St. Edwold’s Church in the village of Nether Monkslip. But the flow of his sermon on Bathsheba is interrupted when the lady of the local manor house is found in a suicide pact with her young lover.
Lady Duxter’s husband rallies quickly from the double tragedytoo quickly, it is murmured in the village. Lord Duxter already has offered his manor house to a motley crew of writers, including Max’s wife Awena, for his writers’ retreat, and he insists the show must go on.
When a young girl goes missing and a crime writer becomes a target, DCI Cotton asks Max to lend his MI5 expertise to the investigation.
Many suspects emerge as the scope of the investigation widens beyond the writers to villagers who had crossed swords with the insufferably smug crime author. But Max begins to wonder: was the attack on the writer only part of a broader conspiracy of silence?
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NOW YOU SEE IT
Lord Duxter had always disliked card tricks. He detested everything to do with magic, actually: rabbits pulled from hats, women sawn in half, the whole sleight-of-hand nonsense. But in particular and mostly, he disliked card tricks.
To him, tricks and magic and all that sort of thing were the hobbies of a twelve-year-old boy — one of stunted emotional development, at that. A grown man should have outgrown such childish pastimes.
But Colin Frost had not. Oh, no, not he. It summed him up, this idiotic interest, which Colin insisted on regarding as some sort of skill set, the specialty of a highly trained artist emerged from his magician's cave after years of study and practice to bore the world with his "pick-a-card" trickeries. It didn't matter to Lord Duxter that he could never figure out the trick — he did not regard that as a commentary on his intelligence. It was more that he didn't care how it was done. One had to care, somehow. He saw it as a sort of social mask Colin hid behind, something to hide the fact that he had no conversation — at least none that would interest any sane person. Colin dealt in software and computers and God knew what-all forms of geekery. Apps, for God's sake. He was always on about the latest apps. He was a cybersecurity expert, with skills ostensibly much in demand. The magic tricks were simply an extension of his preference for dealing with numbers and things rather than engaging with people.
Lord Duxter blamed the mother — she had been much the same way as Colin, and the whole village knew it. Cold as ice, she'd been. And Netta, the grandmother. No doubt she was the prototype for the mother. A cold fish if ever one swam in the small social pond of the Monkslip villages.
It was odd, Lord Duxter reflected. On the surface, Colin had everything going for him: still only in his thirties, he had a high IQ (or at least mathematical ability, if not what one might call actual intelligence); a good, slender physique; and a handsome if rather blank countenance, rather like an Easter Island statue. You could read him as profound or stupid, take your pick. None of these qualities, however, added up to having a personality — that spark of life that lit a man from within. Colin was, in fact, a good-looking dolt, rather naïve and pliable. A man of modest accomplishments married to a woman of stunning ordinariness.
Look at her now, in a frock at least two sizes too big and thick-soled shoes a decade out of style — if they'd ever been in style. They were the kind of shoes one wore if one were worried about a stack of bricks landing on one's toes at any moment. Jane could have been twenty-five or forty but Lord Duxter knew she had just celebrated her thirtieth birthday. Her eyes behind the oversized, rose-tinted lenses conveyed intelligent awareness, so much so that compared with her husband, at least, she was a dynamo.
She was doing a good and meticulous job sorting the books and albums and other materials that had been discovered by a maid clearing out the attic not long before. Lord Duxter knew he was underpaying Jane Frost and resolved to do something about that, soon. Quite soon. No one had ever accused Lord Duxter of being a tightwad, not even his wife, who had accused him of many things. He hired the best and was willing to pay for the best, a lesson he'd learned watching his father penny-pinch over the years with disastrous result. He was also known for his philanthropic impulses, which had earned him an OBE for services to charity and publishing. His little joke was that given the slim profit margins in publishing these days, the whole publishing scene was tantamount to running a charity. But in fact the writers' retreats he sponsored, in which he threw open the doors of his home to struggling authors for up to a month, were what had brought him to the notice of the Queen. He was an incubator for talent, of which he was enormously proud. He wished being an incubator paid better, but one couldn't have everything, he supposed.
Now Colin was actually waving his hands over the pack of cards as he said "Abracadabra" in his deep, booming voice. What an asshole. It's a wonder he wasn't wearing a pointy hat and a cape with moons and stars painted on. Lord Duxter supposed he should feel pity for a man raised in such a stifling environment as that of Hawthorne Cottage but Lord Duxter was not a man much given to fellow feeling, and he certainly did not care about this oaf. He preferred to assist mankind at a vast, safe distance whenever possible. As Charles Schultz had said, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand." Yes, at arm's length was quite the best way. Otherwise, people tried to embroil one in all their little problems.
Now he tried desperately to catch his wife's eye but she was too enthralled by this idiot display. The writers' retreats had in fact been her idea, and much of the work that went into establishing and funding the program had been hers as well, facts he chose to forget when the subject of his OBE came up. For that OBE was without question the crowning achievement of his entire life. Wooton Press was his brainchild and in a tough business he had prevailed, so it was only right the powers that be had finally acknowledged it. And not, in his estimation, before time.
Then there was the house itself to be proud of. He had bought Wooton Priory from King's College, Cambridge, which had owned the building and grounds since the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A small, deconsecrated church, formerly the Priory Church of St. George, still stood on the grounds. It had been converted into a private en suite writers' studio, which Lord Duxter reserved for his bestselling authors. The midlisters were penned up in the main house where they shared the bathing facilities, not without a great deal of grumbling. Lord Duxter had found it beneficial thus to promote competition and friction and if possible ill-will among his authors, always dangling before them the carrot of being invited to stay at the St. George Studio provided they sold enough books for him. It kept them from bitching about their publicity, or lack thereof, if not for long.
King's College had sold the place to him with certain conditions attached, among them that it be used in part for educational purposes, and of course he'd had to fulfill conditions set by the Anglican Church before they released the building into his care. Like it was any of their business anymore, really, but he pretended to be delighted to cooperate with everyone in order to gain his heart's desire. The main buildings of the priory, huddled against the ancient forest and pond and next to the churchyard where for centuries monks had been laid to rest, had been shambolic wrecks when he first saw and fell in love with the place: saw the sunlight streaming through stark, empty windows and splaying patterns against stone floors tufted with weeds. With the success of Wooton Press he began to refurbish the buildings in earnest. Establishing Wooton Priory as a writers' retreat was the next natural step — it required no genius for Marina to have thought of it. And besides, there was that stipulation from King's to think of.
As to further thoughts: his only idea at the moment was that he might leap out of his chair, fling himself across the room, and strangle Colin in front of both their wives if he did not bring this stupid magician's act to an end soon. Lord Duxter drummed his fingers impatiently against the velvet-covered arms of his eighteenth-century chair. He sat before the fireplace in his vast drawing room, where a fire laid by his manservant crackled gleefully. Spring was on the way, and Lord Duxter liked putting the fireplace to use as much as possible. Normally he found it relaxing. Not tonight.
Now he pulled his lips into somewhat of a rictus smile as Colin guessed, correctly, the card he had chosen from the deck. Ace of spades. What a surprise. Colin's own face wore a smile of childlike happiness — a misplaced smile of achievement. Lady Duxter looked genuinely thrilled and overflowing with admiration; she enjoyed this sort of spectacle, while Colin's wife, Jane, much more a sensible sort, could barely be troubled to conceal her boredom. Lord Duxter clapped weakly, politely, in such a way as to discourage Colin from starting in on another trick. In fact, Lord Duxter rose from his chair, still clapping, and said, loudly, "Excellent! That calls for another drink." And before Colin or anyone else could stop him, he headed for the door. He didn't give a tinker's damn if he was being rude. He didn't see a reason why people should be subjected to such torment in their own homes without a little something to dull their senses.
This whole evening had been his wife's idea — she'd invited these people to dinner for reasons of her own. She wanted, she said, to discuss the priory's history with Jane, who was fast becoming an expert on the subject. What fascinated Marina most of all was some stupid legend about a girl's grave in Prior's Wood. Fine. That didn't mean he had to suffer. The women had all day to talk about such things together if they wanted. But Marina felt, she said, that they didn't entertain enough, and she blamed her depression on her isolation. Again, fine. If inviting the village idiot and his harvest-mousy little wife to dine was not a recipe for depression he didn't know what was, but Marina seemed to enjoy planning the meal and arranging the flowers on the table and so on. It gave her an interest. Which was good; she was getting thin as a reed again — always a sign she was agitated by something. But being forced to endure magic tricks had not been part of his concession to getting through the evening. What sort of nitwit, apart from Colin, kept a deck of cards in his pocket at all times — presumably on the off chance someone would beg him to perform? Could he not see that Marina's request had only been made out of politeness? She couldn't be so far gone she saw this nursery-room folly as fun.
Although she did look as though she were enjoying herself. Incredible. An educated, cultivated woman like Marina. Perhaps not having had a child of her own had finally made her lose all her senses. Look at the way she'd taken Colin's teenager under her wing — swapping decorating tips or whatever it was females talked about when they were alone. Marina seemed to be getting rather desperate on the subject of children, longing for what might have been. None of it was healthy, in his opinion.
Lord Duxter's internal monologue continued mining the same vein until he had knocked back a large glass of bourbon, which helped restore his equanimity. Meanwhile, from the sounds emerging from the drawing room, he gathered that yet another performance was underway. Oh, sweet merciful heaven. Colin had moved on from card tricks to tarot cards. He was prattling on, telling someone's fortune: "Now, there's the Emperor. He's always a symbol of monogamy. That would be Lord Duxter, of course." Lord Duxter's ears pricked up. He had been faithful to his lady wife, that much was true. Thick and thin. Mostly. "Oh, and there's the Magician! I suppose tonight that's me. Ha ha! In this position it means an event is coming that will open up new worlds and perspectives."
Lord Duxter, topping up his drink, thought sending Colin to another world might be a splendid idea, if he took that deck of cards with him.
"And next, we have the Pope in the position of career. This means a change of situation." From where Lord Duxter stood he couldn't tell for whom Colin was reading the cards. It could have been Marina or Jane. But if Colin was telling his own fortune, certainly a change could be arranged for him.
It went against all his years of acquired breeding but Lord Duxter decided he could not stand any more. They probably wouldn't notice he was gone anyway, he told himself, with more than a tinge of self-pity. He had reached an age where he felt he had tended to the needs of others long enough. (This was patently untrue, but this sort of thing was the sort of thing he told himself.) His wife with her chronic illnesses and complaints and air of melancholy was the last straw. He was still paying off the bill for that expensive clinic she'd stayed at in Switzerland. He didn't deserve this. It was now his turn to enjoy his life.
Carrying his again-refilled glass, he took himself up the wide carpeted stairs to his bedroom. The trouble with sending Colin away was that he would come back, but at least there would be a respite from the card tricks. He would call his friend Sir Braithminster in the morning — he had been saying just the other day that his oil company in Saudi Arabia was desperate for geeks like Colin. And Colin was desperate for a job. And by the looks of things, his wife Jane was desperate for a little "me" time, as well as a new frock and hairdo.
Overall, the sooner the man was out of everyone's hair, the happier everyone would be. Lord Duxter wondered what the Saudis would make of him.
That was their problem. Perhaps he'd have a little accident. Maybe a camel would sit on him. Now that would be a change of situation.
As Lord Duxter reached the top of the stairs, he could faintly hear Colin exclaim, "Oh! The Death card. No, no ... not to worry, Marina, it doesn't always mean ... you know. It can just mean the end of an era. A new beginning."
Lord Duxter, amazed that Colin had the cheek to call his wife so familiarly by her first name, heard her exclaim nervously, "Are you sure, Colin? How can you be sure?" She had always been a gullible ninny when it came to rubbish like this.
"No, no," Colin assured her. "It doesn't necessarily mean death. Almost never. Just that a change is in the works, that's all. Now, enough of this. It seems Lord Duxter isn't coming back. Anyone up for a game of Widow Whist?"
"I can't believe it's almost the first of May," said Awena, looking at the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. "It's nearly time for Beltane — how did that happen? I'll need to find the dried meadowsweet to make the May wine — but I wonder where I put it?" She reached into a kitchen drawer, pulling out a pair of scissors. The gilt-edged embroidery of her dress reflected morning sunlight into the room. Awena, it was said, might have invented boho chic. On her feet she wore jeweled sandals. "It's probably too early to hope to find fresh meadowsweet growing."
"Beltane?" asked her husband, the Reverend Max Tudor, over the top of that day's Monkslip-super-Mare Globe and Bugle.
"Do you know," Awena continued, "I suppose I really should add the recipe for May wine to my newest cookbook, but the recipe is so easy it hardly seems worth it. You simply add the meadowsweet to white wine and let it steep for twenty-four hours. It does give me an idea, though. I wonder if it would be a good idea to organize the book by the four seasons. What do you think, Max?"
The cookbook was only one of the plates Awena kept in the air, in a manner of speaking. She also now had a meditation app. Free to download, of course, and developed for her by a rather intense, bespectacled young man in London with an astonishing collection of video and voice recording equipment. Meditation was a free gift, she maintained, and no one should charge for it.
"It's always good to be organized," said Max vaguely, folding back the newspaper to the crossword puzzle. "But what happens if you write a follow-up book? You'll have used up all the seasons. Did you say, Beltane?"
Not offended that her husband was listening with only half his attention, Awena nodded. She stood back from the kitchen counter, where she had been arranging spring flowers, and cast a critical eye over the bluebells. The cottage she shared with Max and their still-sleeping child, Owen, always smelled of fresh blossoms that were never allowed to stand in yesterday's water. By some seemingly miraculous process, flowers arranged by Awena lasted twice as long as anyone else's. This made her presence less, not more, desired by the women of the St. Edwold's Church Flower Guild. Beloved as Awena was, there was always a certain amount of jockeying for position on the flower rota, for decorating the altar often meant coveted face time with Max, their handsome vicar. Parishioners were known to borrow or even invent problems to bring to Max when they had no real problems of their own. There was something so soothing in his manner they felt the lightening of a burden shared, before they remembered there had been no real problem in the first place.
"Beltane, yes," said Awena. "'Bright Fires.' It's halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Beltane will start at sundown April thirtieth and last all day May first. You must remember this from last year, Max?"
"I think I'm meant officially to look the other way," said Max. "But yes, I remember."
"Beltane was huge around these parts, until Christianity drove it out — or underground," she said. "The Church tried to turn it into May Day — a much tamer event. It is one of the few pagan festivals they failed to repurpose into a Christian one. The people liked it as it was. But officials did try."
Excerpted from "In Prior's Wood"
Copyright © 2018 G. M. Malliet.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
PART I: ABSENT IN THE SPRING,
1. Now You See It,
2. May Day,
PART II: IN THE CARDS,
3. The Fool,
5. The High Priestess,
6. The Emperor and Empress,
7. The Lovers,
8. The Star,
PART III: AS IT LAYS,
11. The Hanged Man,
12. The Tower,
13. The Magician,
15. Wheel of Fortune,
16. The Chariot,
17. The Devil,
18. The Hermit,
PART IV: THE WORLD AND THE FLESH,
19. The High Priest,
20. The Moon,
22. The World,
23. The Flesh,
24. And Everywhere, the Devil,
Also by G.M. Malliet,
About the Author,