Jan Lee reviews An Unholy Mess by Joyce Cato, who writes crime without the gory detail

Jacquie Walton, who has lived near Oxford all her life, began her career at the age of 20 with romantic novels using the pseudonym of Maxine Barry.

She then moved to crime writing as Faith Martin with 16 police-procedurals featuring the popular Detective Hilary Greene living on a narrowboat moored at Thrupp and working at Kidlington Thames Valley headquarters.

Walton now writes stand-alone classic English murder mysteries under the name of Joyce Cato. An Unholy Mess, her seventh in this genre, opens with the vicar’s new wife Monica throwing a garden-party for the recent arrivals to the Georgian vicarage of Heyford Bassett which is being converted into 12 elegant flats.

Despite the heat, the residents have abandoned the village for the traditional summer fair leaving the guests to gossip and get to know one another when the peace is shattered by the blast of a shotgun. Fearing for her daughter Monica rushes into the house to discover the slaughtered body of Margaret, one of the guests.

Who, among the recent inhabitants to this exclusive community could be the perpetrator of this horrific crime: glamorous Margaret, her philanderer husband, the celebrity chef, a retired, secretive Oxford Don, a randy divorcee, the body-builder or, surely not, the kindly vicar with his sensitive wife Monica? Chief inspector Jason, unmarried with “startlingly blue eyes” is soon on the scene.

Cato, like Agatha Christie, enjoys crime but “not the gory or grisly forensic/serial killer type”.

For both authors, their prime interest lies in the ensuing puzzle, the solution of which will lead to the restoration of the moral order.

Cato is a canny observer of human nature; for all her light and easy style, one never forgets the underlying cruelty of evil.

An Unholy Mess by Joyce Cato, published by Robert Hale, £19.99