"A Demon Summer" (Minotaur), by G.M. Malliet
G.M. Malliet continues to update the traditional British village mystery in her highly entertaining "A Demon Summer." While the village of Nether Monkslip is typical, the twist that Malliet spins so well is that the local vicar, Max Tudor, was a former agent with MI5, the British counterintelligence agency.
While this conceit might seem a bit too precious, Malliet's respect for the genre seamlessly makes Max's former career a natural part of the plot. Malliet's series looks at how a former spy disillusioned with the job reinvents himself as an Anglican priest, as well as showing how a religious man administers to an increasingly secular world. Of course, these being mysteries, Max's former occupation often comes in quite handy.
The fourth novel in this series offers a change in scenery as a nunnery stands in for the village. Max is asked by Bishop Nigel St. Stephen to take a brief break from his duties at St. Edwold's Church to spend a few nights at Monkbury Abbey. The bishop has taken a hands-off approach to the nunnery since the sisters have been fairly self-supporting. But lately the bishop suspects "financial shenanigans" because some large donations have gone missing. Then, the despised Earl of Lislelivet became seriously ill after eating a fruitcake given to him by the sisters. The bishop worries that the poisoning wasn't accidental, and he is relying on Max's special skills as a spy to find the truth about the fruitcake and the abbey's finances. Max discovers that the religious atmosphere is rift with gossip and legends of buried treasure, and the nunnery is divided -- some nuns want to modernize the abbey while others adamantly do not.
Wry humor permeates "A Demon Summer." After all, haven't most of us thought that fruitcakes were, in some way, lethal? Yet Malliet also weaves in a serious subplot about families, devotion and the reasons that attract some people to a near cloistered life.
Each visit to Nether Monkslip with its mix of eccentric and ordinary residents has been a delight. "A Demon Summer" pays tribute to the village mystery while showing its relevance to modern times.