Hazel Holt: Death in the Family
(17th in the Sheila Malory series)

>>Sheila Malory is less than thrilled when her loathsome cousin Bernard
comes to Taviscombe looking for information to complete his family tree.
After all, she’s got better things to do than listen to Bernard’s pompous
genealogical lectures and watch him berate his mousy wife. But when
Bernard dies suddenly in his rented cottage, it’s more than family
obligation that keeps Mrs. Malory on the case. Someone wanted
Bernard out of the way, and with all the dirt he was digging up
on the family, the killer could be more than kin…and less than kind.<<
(from Fantastic Fiction).

I can’t keep up the Grumpy Old Man too long so it is a real pleasure
to be able to commend a book (as well as a pleasure to read a
book I enjoyed! though actually I read this before the two above).

Holt is an author in whom I am increasingly interested and another I
intend (ahhh those intentions) to read in chronological order. My impressionhas been that the quality is somewhat variable. This is certainly one of the best.

 Sheila Malory would I know be off-putting to many – that jam making,
the cat and dog, the Good Works. But I never mind this much – it appears
to me perfectly ‘realistic’ – far more realistic than the wretched Blake (see my review of Victoria Blake’s Bloodless Shadow).
And there’s an interesting comparison with Blake here – both books
feature male characters who are monstrous bullies; but where Blake’s is
stereotyped, over-the-top, wholly unconvincing and not in the least chilling
Holt’s is quiet, perfectly drawn, wholly convincing and very, very chilling.
It is a perfect illustration for me of the absurdity and difficulty of the
‘cozy’ label. Yes Holt is cozy as far as the jam making and pets go.
But when we come to human evil, to the pain, distortions and horrors
of family life she is a thousand times more convincing, more chilling,
less ‘cozy’ plain nastier than Blake’s bombastic, in your face cliche.
I suppose though that in the end it all comes down to good and bad writing.
The basic plot conceit here (the skeletons which genealogy – now incredibly
popular in the UK – might throw up) is brilliant and I am amazed it has not
been used extensively before (I certainly don’t recall an example) ; it is
such a rich and natural seam that I think every mystery writer should give it a go. Holt works it well. There are no plot pyrotechnics (that is not her
strength) but there is an underlying sadness, a melancholia, which she manages to convey extremely effectively. Bittersweet would be the word. And from what I have read (cos I have not read her myself) it is no coincidence that Holt was a personal friend, literary adviser and official biographer of Barbara Pym.
Anyway for those who are not put off by the jam making, who are
looking for good writing in the mainstream Britmyst tradition, this is
thoroughly recommended.

(November 2007)