Friday, December 18, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Because I’ve read some marvelous historical mysteries recently, I’ve started looking for more. Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell follows two sleuths in a post-WWI English manor. The setting attracted me and I was pleased to be approved for this novel by Netgalley.

Lady Phoebe and her lady’s maid Eva are the stars of this fast-moving mystery. Having worked together on homefront projects during the war, and both understanding sacrifice and loss, the two are friends rather than servant and mistress, though Eva shows the requisite reticence to drop all boundaries.

Phoebe’s older sister, Jane, is a beauty whose title, wealth, and good looks attract men in a way that Phoebe can never hope to do. At a family Christmas houseparty, guests have gathered expecting the announcement of an engagement between Jane and the neighboring Lord Henry Allerton. However, Henry is a brute. Jane refuses him. Phoebe overhears a nasty argument.

The next morning is Boxing Day. Eva and a couple of other servants along with a couple of tradesmen in town receive gifts from the manor. In the boxes, each finds a severed finger and a valuable personal item. The fingers and expensive items belong(ed) to Lord Allerton.

Understanding him to be dead, Phoebe and Eva are determined to find the killer, especially after one of the footmen is falsely arrested. (The investigator is incompetent and rude. Fortunately, he has a young Irish assistant who is more open-minded.) They don’t know who can be trusted. Phoebe is concerned that her sister may somehow be involved or, at least, she feels she should come clean about the argument. The other houseguests are also suspect.

The plot twists and turns make this an enjoyable read. It isn’t very hard to guess the likely culprit, but the misdirections help keep the outcome in doubt.

Phoebe and Eva are feisty and determined, and put the clues together cleverly. However, they are, for much of the novel, oblivious to personal danger, which makes some of their actions, particularly Phoebe’s, seem unlikely. In addition, the peripheral characters are flat, filling the usual murder mystery roles without standing out. It keeps the interpersonal relationships less interesting than they would be if the people around Phoebe and Eva were more roundly drawn. Still, in order to keep motives murky and suspicion muddled, the reader needs to be distant from the other characters. This looks to be the start of a series, and now that the reader sees who is to be trusted, it’s likely the supporting players will be fleshed out in future books.