In Prior’s Wood

Wasn’t it Alan Kay who had said the best way to predict the future was to create it?

Yes, it was.

Having worked briefly for computer scientist Alan Kay at Atari 35 years ago, I was rather startled to see this quote in a cozy mystery that takes place in a small English village à la Agatha Christie! In this case the book is G.M. Malliet’s In Prior’s Wood, very Christie-esque and about the last place to find an American computer scientist quoted. It’s not until page 230, so the setting and atmosphere have been long established by this point, even though the NPC who might be thinking of the quote is indeed a computer scientist. You’ve probably never been to Nether Monkslip, where this seven-novel series takes place — it is fiction, after all — but you can tell from artist Rhys Davies’s rendering at the end of this post that it feels very familiar.

Whether you’re a Christie fan or not, you will be immediately drawn into this charming novel by the initial pages of the Author’s Note and the Cast of Characters. Here is an excerpt from the first of these:

Read that again. It’s worth reading twice.

Although Malliet’s work is on the conventional side, there are a couple of things about it that are not particularly conventional for a British cozy. One is that her protagonist is neither a professional detective (like Hercule Poirot) nor a little old lady (like Miss Marple); he’s a former MI 5 agent who has become an Anglican priest. Of course being an MI 5 agent is somewhat related to being a detective, and the village of Nether Monkslip has some similarities to St. Mary Mead, so there are still connections here. The other unconventional aspect of this series is that Malliet is actually American, like Elizabeth George, even though she seems convincingly English, at least to my American ears. But what do I know?

One other point: Tarot cards figure prominently at several points in In Prior’s Wood, and I can’t quite figure out why. I am handicapped by knowing next to nothing about Tarot, and I feel uncomfortable around those who profess a belief in it. But I noticed early on in reading this book that the chapter titles are clearly names of Tarot cards. For example, chapters 10–18:

Surely there are connections with the events in each chapter… but what are they? Read it yourself, and you’ll figure it out. Maybe.

Categories: Books