Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Detective Chief Inspector David Brock of Scotland Yard, who first appeared in Barry Maitland's well-received American debut, The Marx Sisters, are once again shepherding readers through the pages of a deceptively simple, solidly plotted police procedural. This time, though, the gritty rituals of inspection and evidence are, rather amusingly, confined to a naturopathic spa where the elegant buildings and serene atmosphere evoke the refined settings of Agatha Christie's country house mysteries. One almost expects to catch Hercule Poirot bustling through the spa's Greek (in name if not origin) temple. Unfortunately, bustling is not the activity of interest at this particular temple; hanging, however, is.
On temporary assignment away from London and bored to tears with the dully quotidian tasks assigned to her, Kathy leaps at the chance to investigate the apparent suicide of Alex Petrou, a physiotherapist at the Stanhope Clinic. But when inconsistencies start piling up, Kathy finds herself with a wide circle of suspects and motives: Was Petrou killed to protect the interests of certain wealthy clients? Was the physiotherapist indulging in a spot of unhealthy blackmail? What secrets might Dr. Stanley Beamish-Newell be hiding under his melodic voice and lentil soufflés? Yanked unceremoniously--and suspiciously-- from the case before she can investigate further, Kathy asks Brock to help her. When he infiltrates the spa (and what an amusing patient he is), Brock stumbles into a morass of suspicion and deception and the consequences echo in some unexpectedly familiar places.
Perhaps The Malcontenta's greatest achievement is what it doesn't do. With a cast of characters drawn straight from a textbook on mystery plots (the eager rookie cop, the avuncular chief inspector, the impressively charismatic great man, the slick foreigner, the coolly clinical nurse, the shyly ineffectual gardener, the cheerful Irish lass, etc., etc.), the novel risks plunging into the depths of stultifying cliché. Instead, Maitland's deft touch makes these familiar characters refreshing. Though the professional chemistry between Brock and Kathy seems more muted than in The Marx Sisters, the reader is more than compensated by the care Maitland takes in fleshing out the nuanced relationships between the detectives and the people they investigate. Readers should be well content with The Malcontenta. --Kelly Flynn [via]