It is Christmas 1918 in Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell, and the Renshaws and their neighbors the Allertons have gathered together to celebrate the new peace. Julia Renshaw is all but engaged to Lord Henry Allerton, but on Christmas, her younger sister Phoebe overhears Julia breaking things off with him. In anger and a sense of ownership of Julia, Lord Allerton threatens the woman and grabs her tightly enough to cause massive bruises.
Boxing Day, the British holiday on December 26, originated when lords would give their serfs the box of their owed supplies for the year, and the Renshaws follow this tradition in giving the staff boxes of Christmas presents and the day off. Eva, the ladies’ maid who serves all three daughters of the house, takes her box home to her parents’ home, opening it to find a signet ring, but this ring comes with a finger. Upon returning to Foxwood Hall with her box, Eva finds out that she is the sixth servant to receive a finger, and it is apparent that the fingers belong to the missing Lord Allerton. Though the police come to investigate, Phoebe is certain that they are not doing a proper job and determines to investigate herself, using the help of Eva to let her know what is happening below stairs. When the constable arrests a member of the staff, the pair, certain that the man is innocent, get really busy searching for the killer and the still-missing body of Sir Henry Allerton.
I had a great time listening to this book. Even though it contains a fairly large cast of characters, Maxwell draws them with a vivid brush so as to make them appear real and thus easy enough to distinguish from each other. I enjoyed the characters of Phoebe and Eva and appreciated the discussion of the changing social mores that the First World War brought to the world. When Phoebe thinks Eva considers her less important than her two sisters because she is less decorative and conventional, Eva responds by negating that and challenging Phoebe to change the world with her intelligence and bold spirit.
The mystery plot also kept me guessing throughout the book. Though the appearance of fingers at the beginning of the book may scare away fans of the cozy mystery genre, the book does not contain any other form of gore, and the characters are even afraid to talk openly about such indelicate topics as severed body parts or the corpse they are trying to locate.
Ellen Archer performs the audio edition of this book. She helps to transport us to 1918 and the time when upper class households had such a large staff. Archer uses a gentle tone of voice that let the book sell itself, showing off the strengths of the book without added drama.
I thoroughly enjoyed Murder Most Malicious and thought it much stronger than Murder at the Breakers, the first book in Maxwell’s Gilded Newport Mystery series (Read my review of that book here.) My only complaint is that it wouldn’t allow me to go to sleep because I was too eager to learn what was going to happen. I give this book five stars.
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