Review: Mrs. Malory and Death By Water

Written by Hazel Holt
Published by Signet Books, 2003, 248 pp.

Not long ago I found myself in need of an outfit to wear to a funeral. And, determined not to have to shop for anything new, I ended up burrowing deep into my closet, pulling out a couple of garment bags full of “wedding/funeral stuff,” and spending an entire afternoon sorting and trying on. Well, about two hours into my quest, I suddenly realized what a very “Barbara Pym” scene it was. But then I thought no, not Barbara – more like Sheila Malory.

Sheila Malory is the fiftyish (or I suppose, by now sixtyish) amateur sleuth at the center of Hazel Holt’s “Mrs. Malory” series of mysteries. Sheila is a widow who lives in the fictional English seaside village of Taviscombe. She’s sensible and witty and erudite and self-deprecating, and she makes her own marmalade and scones. She has a grown son (who goes from university to law practice during the course of the series), a dog named Tris, and a cat named Foss. She is “deeply involved in local activities,” always helping plan the annual Christmas Fayre, or rounding up jumble for a sale to benefit Help the Aged. She’s also a writer of “the occasional volume of literary criticism – mostly about the more obscure Victorian novelists.” And in her spare time (!) she solves local murder mysteries.

The Mrs. Malory books are “cozy” mysteries, so there’s very little violence or overt nastiness. The deaths take place “offstage,” and most don’t even seem like murders at first – the victims are usually (but not always) elderly or ill, so that their deaths don’t strike anyone as too surprising or suspicious. But once Mrs. Malory starts nosing around and putting two and two together, murder always outs (how’s that for a nice chain of mixed metaphors or references or something?).

In Mrs. Malory and Death By Water (issued as Leonora in the UK), Sheila’s dear friend Leonora Staveley, a legendary journalist and foreign correspondent now in her eighties, is found dead from drinking contaminated water. And although the cause of death seems surprising, Sheila at first accepts it as not unlikely – Leonora lived alone in an out-of-the-way country cottage, with a large assortment of domestic and farm animals roaming around the place. So a contaminated water supply doesn’t seem out of the question.

But in her will, Leonora has left her voluminous library to Sheila. And once Sheila starts sorting through all the books and papers, she begins to see the death as suspicious – especially after a few questions arise about some of Leonora’s other bequests. And then there’s the fact that Leonora’s brother Vernon was anxious to acquire her cottage so he could use the land for a real estate scheme he’d been working on. Sheila also finds out about a quarrel Leonora had with her neighbors, over the placement of a boundary wall between their properties. And then strangers begin to emerge from Leonora’s past (well, don’t they always?), leading Sheila to realize that her old friend may have had an even more adventurous life than anyone had imagined. After that, Sheila of course suspects foul play, and she’s off and running. Well, not running – she’s too dignified for that.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I should think of Barbara Pym and Hazel Holt together – they were friends and co-workers for many years at London’s International African Institute, and Holt later became Pym’s literary executor and biographer. These days there are a lot of “Pymish” mysteries around, but in my opinion the Mrs. Malory series is far and away the best of the lot.

Oh, I did manage to put together an outfit for the funeral, and I didn’t have to buy a thing. And after all the trying on, I had a nice cup of tea. I like to think Sheila and Barbara would have approved.

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