Devil's Breath by G. M. Malliet is the 6th book in the Max Tudor series.
I’ve always enjoyed the novels in G. M. Malliet’s Max Tudor series and find that they tend to get better as the series progresses. That said, I haven’t been the good completist that I usually am, and so I want to know (since I have woefully skipped past books 4 and 5 to get here): where is Suzanna Winship, and why are she and DCI Cotton not together?!
Ahem. DCI Cotton does make an appearance here, of course, as a body is found washed ashore at Monkslip-super-Mare, the delightfully named resort town in the parish administered by our hero—Anglican priest, former MI5 agent, and resident of the nearby village of Nether Monkslip—the Reverend Maxen “Max” Tudor. Ordinarily, Max would be happy to leave all the investigating to his good friend Cotton, especially with his wife and young child to dote on, but MI5 has other plans.
His former boss attaches him to the case in order to further an investigation that began when the deceased film star Margot Browne was still aboard the globe-trotting yacht Calypso Facto. MI5 suspects at least one of the passengers or crew of being involved in an international drug-smuggling ring, and so calls in Max when their active agent becomes indisposed and needs to come ashore.
While Max can’t really say no to his former employers, he also finds his curiosity piqued by the almost locked-room quality of the murder. Margot was apparently strangled aboard the yacht before being thrown overboard, and as he investigates the glamorous and/or tempestuous circle of suspects, the question of motive is the one uppermost in his mind.
Margot was a Hollywood star of limited acting talent aging well out of her prime and—despite being as insecure and demanding as a woman in her position could possibly be—hardly seemed a target for murder. As Max makes the acquaintance of film directors, actors, screenwriters, stylists, and European royalty, he finds that others share his bewilderment, if not his compassion—as here when interviewing said royalty, a married couple who seem to subsist by mooching off a circuit of well-heeled friends and acquaintances. They can hardly believe that Margot was murdered and would rather the whole thing was swept under the rug as quickly as possible so they can continue with their privileged lifestyles, the husband of the pair saying:
“I mean, it’s such a tawdry event and it involves such a tawdry person.”
[Max] was offended and struggled mightily to smother the retort that came to his lips. Looking at this privileged pair, alight with carefree youth and beauty, he wanted to say: Margot was once like you two. She was young and beautiful. She also worked for a living when and as she could, rather than sponge off her friends as you do. She grew old and she probably had only a future alone to look forward to, and that is no crime.
As always, G. M. Malliet’s sympathy for the human condition shines through, with Max being the primary vessel—fittingly since he turned his back on the duplicitous, dangerous life of a secret agent for the pastoral satisfaction of ministering to and nurturing the spiritual needs of a congregation. The way Ms. Malliet has written the book, however, with each new main character getting an introductory chapter (a device that I, personally, love), allows for the reader to see how each of them privately views each other and themselves. This includes our victim, Margot, whom Ms. Malliet presents as both ridiculous and sympathetic—as so many people actually are. Margot is well aware that the beauty she has traded on for her entire career is beginning to fade, and she rails against an industry that seeks to ignore and ultimately discard her:
It just took a little magic with the lighting and makeup, and magic was their job, after all. A little extra effort on their part was all that was required, the lazy bastards. All she was asking for was a chance to show what she could still do.
She did her bit, that much was certain. The neck-and-face exercises, the yoga, the small-weight lifting, the barre classes, the hair coloring with expert highlighting, the Botox, the waxing, the surgery, the veneers the—actually, it exhausted her just thinking about it. She had been at this game so long, this game of chasing after youth, she began to wonder how much of the original little Margot-from-Kansas was left.
As a metaphor for a society that places too much emphasis on a woman’s looks as part of her worth, this resonates as deeply as Ms. Malliet’s other insights to the human condition. And I did enjoy this mystery and its solution even more than in her previous Max Tudor novels. I only wish there had been 100% more Suzanna—though I suppose I really ought to dive into the back catalog for more of my favorite character, even as I hope to encounter more of her again in Book 7!
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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