- - Thursday, June 22, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

DEVIL’S BREATH: A MAX TUDOR MYSTERY

By G.M. Malliet

Minotaur, $25.99, 304 pages

Mixing a former M15 agent with a dishy priest and a bunch of Hollywood gossips is guaranteed to be at least entertaining and potentially explosive.

And it is in this lively and sometimes hilarious account of the latest adventures of Max Tudor, the erstwhile agent who has become the vicar of Nether Monkslip — and there is no way you can improve on that name.

Gossip always sells, especially when it’s about politicians or theatrical celebrities. Movie stars are often more fascinating than politicians when they plunge into scandal because it tends to be more lurid if also more trivial. Actresses having seven husbands takes on a certain element of farce whereas politicians can be steeped in the kind of social catastrophe that can ruin their careers as well as their chances of re-election. Presidents, as we all know, are especially vulnerable to the raw kind of scandal that chases away voters. Unpredictability at the polls has come back to haunt many an ambitious seeker of office, and the best stories of the political world can usually be tracked to the colossal ego of the vote hunter.

In the cases dealt with by Max Tudor, he is playing a triple role as a former espionage agent, a handsome vicar and a remarkably shrewd investigator. “Devil’s Breath” by G.M. Malliet is made more tasty with its portrayal of once-luscious actress Margot Browne. She is still clinging to what remains of her looks, strengthened by a ferocious ego that has taken her along the road of success, drugs, men and even unwanted children. The primary action of the book is set aboard a luxury yacht run by Romero Fornier, a famous director struggling to maintain his reputation while yearning to become another Hitchcock. His days of glory as a director have been brief and are fading fast like his onetime romance with Margot, whom he has now replaced with Tina, who is as gorgeous as he wants but is also very similar to a younger Margot.

Margot, of course, has long ago replaced Romero with a series of other lovers, the latest being the current Jake, a desperately up-and-coming young actor who is hoping for the role of a gladiator in Romero’s latest epic, which tells you something about how up-and-coming he is. One of the most vivid characters whom Max has to interview is Maurice, a hair stylist to the stars and a man who know everything about everybody and is compassionate enough not to talk about it. People know what Maurice knows and they also know he is not the kind of man who talks. It suggests that hair styling has a more philosophical range than acting, although in it end it has a cost for poor old Maurice.

Murder does play a part in the book when Margot is poisoned and then drowned off the luxury yacht, but it is the kind of mystery where the characterization of the cast is much more intriguing than what is in fact a rather mundane crime — especially since Margot was the kind of victim whom somebody was eventually going to get rid of. Her personal secrets were many and dramatic in nature and it is perhaps surprising that her death didn’t take place sooner.

Max Tudor is ideally cast as the man who listens and in the end puts all the pieces together so he can go home to his beautiful wife and his eight-month-old son, who have given his life a totally different cast. On the other hand, Max remains on call to MI5 and his clandestine boss George, who sees the role of village priest as appropriate to a job of exposing real secrets. Max points out that he is constantly amazed and amused by the uproars that accompany his duties of writing sermons.

Especially shocking, he declares, is the brawl that usually accompanies a “bring and buy” sale by the proper ladies of his congregation. In fact, he has encountered homicide in stranger places, but the only person who complains about this is his bishop who isn’t quite comfortable with his vicar’s propensity for finding dark deeds in a church.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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