Phyllida Bright, fictional housekeeper to Agatha Christie, is a sensational character. All along I’ve been saying I fell in love with her during the first chapter of this novel by Colleen Cambridge, but it actually happened in the second paragraph. When she finds a body in the library of Mallowan Hall, the Cornwall manor where Agatha and her husband are hosting a party, she feels a moment of concern but still moves to remind herself As if I don’t have enough to manage today. She knows she has enough on her plate with a staff to manage, fifteen guest rooms to care for, as well as overseeing the complete care of the Mallowan family, so this dead body was just not in her plans for the day. Her practical nature, the training she obtained as a nurse’s aid during the Great War, and her incredible sense of humour all combine to make her one of the most entertaining amateur sleuths I’ve read in years.
Of course, any charming sleuth – amateur or otherwise – needs a mystery to solve, and in the case of Murder at Mallowan Hall, the mystery involves the grisly murder of a journalist who had pushed his way into the weekend party by saying he was on an assignment to interview Agatha. This makes him a conveniently unsympathetic character to the main suspects – who are either loyal employees at the manor or wealthy guests – naturally suspicious of the press. All of the characters are written with accurate period details and splendid names like Mrs. Budgely-Rhodes and Mr. Tuddy Sloop. At first the death seems like little more than an inconvenience. In fact, the butler and Phyllida calmly discuss how to remove blood stains from the library carpet as they await the local constable, and the weekend guests initially express shock but move on quickly to entertain each other and enjoy the comforts the Hall. Agatha tries to stay out of the way of the investigation but Phyllida keeps her up to date through chats over tea, possibly inspiring a plot for an upcoming book while they discuss what her next steps might be. As the inspector begins to interview the guests and staff, requesting they remain at the manor for longer than planned, the murder takes on greater importance for all.
As a friend and fan of Agatha’s writing, Phyllida feels especially equipped to assist with the investigation and knows that the sooner this whole matter is finished, the better. She wants the household to return to normal and decides to use her formidable skills as a housekeeper (and her convenient keyring which allows access to every room of the house) to solve the murder. She is assisted in her work by the local inspector and a dapper chauffeur who prefers to be addressed as ‘Bradford’. Red herrings cause the reader to suspect Bradford and several others as possible suspects and then potential romantic options for Phyllida, making this a story that keeps you guessing until the end. While she finds a way to participate in police interviews with fourteen staff members, Phyllida also travels into town to meet with suspects and witnesses, searches guestrooms, and still keeps the manor running smoothly. A housekeeper is an excellent choice to scrutinize clues and possible suspects, and one who has a close relationship with Agatha Christie is genius.
Phyllida is a capable caretaker for the large manor; she’s able to manage a staff, consider the maintenance of antique clocks, place orders with the local butcher, and solve murders all at the same time. She is also a curious and optimistic manager of people who uses her formidable skills to build loyalty with the staff, except with the butler Mr. Dobble (their rivalry sometimes causes her to sneak a bracing drink of dry sherry before they speak).
Characters that shine and a vivid sense of place (the local bar is called the Screaming Magpie and some of the action takes place at a Duck Pond Derby) make this an entirely entertaining book from start to finish. This will be the beginning of a long series as Phyllida Bright cannot spend the rest of her days simply planning meals, managing a staff, and keeping a manor house in tiptop shape. There are mysteries to be solved and she is the woman to do it.