Hazel Holt, the author of the Mrs Malory series of mysteries, of which there are now 20, was a friend of Barbara Pym, and her literary executrix. Those of us who are great admirers of Pym's novels look for literary allusions in Hazel Holt's work and we find lots of them. Mrs Malory is a free-lance writer of literary biographies and criticism with a special interest in Charlotte M Yonge.
In Mrs Malory Investigates, the first of the series, Mrs Malory meets a young police inspector. Here is their first conversation:
"What do policemen read?"
"Well, this policemen reads Trollope and George Eliot," he said. "And Charlotte M Yonge. I was very interested in your article on the medical background in The Daisy Chain, in the Review of Literature." He smiled at my evident surprise. "If you think about it, the Victorian novel is the perfect antidote to twentieth-century violence."
In this book she is writing a piece on Mrs Oliphant's Salem Chapel. She reads herself to sleep with Yonge's Pillars of the House and she gives her policeman friend a copy of her Dyvenor Terrace. This sort of thing is catnip to Victorian novel lovers.
And for Pym lovers there are a few echoes. Mrs Malory is a widow and she tells us in this Pym-like scene:
After two years' grieving, you may think you've done with that first, sharp, painful misery, but it's always there waiting for such a moment as this, and then it comes back as strongly as ever, sweeping over you in waves.
I sat at the table for some time, not really thinking of anything but just having what my mother used to call "a good wallow." A ray of winter sun, shining on to the sideboard, made me get up and fetch a duster, and that broke the mood, and I pulled myself together and did the washing up, thinking how lucky women were to have so many little tasks that simply had to be done, so that, in the end, cheerfulness did keep breaking in.
Cheerfulness Breaks In is a 1940 novel written by Angela Thirkell.
This is one of the pleasures of reading Pym's novels, to encounter this quotidian life of middle-aged women and their pleasures, which can come from little things, including housework. Mrs Malory and her friends find these pleasures in the way Pym's characters do.
Mrs Malory describes herself in terms that she and Pym's sister use to describe the young Pym herself in their collection of Pym's letters and journals, A Very Private Eye:
From a very early age I have always invented stories about people I have known only by sight, who have caught my attention in some way. And sometimes I have "investigated" them - in my youth even shadowing them in the street, like a private detective in fiction - finding out about them obliquely from other sources, looking them up in directories or registers.
The first book in a mystery series determines the tone for the rest of the mysteries. It introduces the characters you will be meeting in the future, and the pattern is set. Some mysteries open with a violent murder, then bring on the detective, perhaps put his or her life in danger, and finally resolve the mystery. In the Mrs Malory series more often than not it isn't apparent that there has been a murder at first.
Mrs Malory and her friends in a small English seaside town go about their good works - a rummage sale, a fete to raise money for the church organ fund, a Women's Institute meeting to plan for a lecture series. Only slowly does it become obvious to Mrs Malory that someone has been killed and that it's up to her to find out what she can about the situation. She confronts the murderer at the end of most books but she is never in danger. These books are the coziest of cozies.
In this mystery a friend of Mrs Malory is about to marry a woman who wants him only for his money. When the woman turns up missing and Mrs Malory's friend is on business travel and can't get to England, she agrees to look into the situation. Because she knows so many people in town, and because she has such a winning way with people, Mrs Malory is able to determine that the woman was last seen meeting a man in a remote spot. Eventually Mrs Malory finds her body and, in time, the murderer.
2012 No 104