Dead Men Don’t Ski, by Patricia Moyes (1959)

moyes_dead-men-dont-ski_henryholtDead Men Don’t Ski is the first in a series of mystery novels about Inspector Henry Tibbett whose wife Emmy plays an important role in the detection and the plot. This book, and others by the same author, seem to me to bridge the gap between the strict-form puzzle mystery and the modern cozy mystery. Dead Men Don’t Ski is actually a timetable mystery a la Freeman Wills Crofts, but bundled with a great deal of excellent characterization and a charming writing style.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

s-l225What is this novel about?

Scotland Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett takes his wife Emmy on vacation in the Italian Alps, where both hope to improve their skiing. They meet an engaging cast of characters, many of whom are vacationing English skiers, and some of whom are locals in the picturesque little town. Very soon we learn of the mysterious death of a local ski instructor in the previous year, and the possibility of there being some sort of international smuggling operation based around a mysterious gentleman who comes to the local hotel every year. The reader will not be surprised to learn that one of the hotel guests is soon discovered dead at the bottom of the mountain on the ski lift, although he was apparently alive when he embarked from the top.

Inspector Tibbett seems ready to abandon his vacation in order to investigate any and all of the circumstances surrounding the death on the ski lift, including a second related murder, and in the process resolves the smuggling issues, a couple of serious problems with various marriages, and last year’s corpse on the ski hill.

51OGIEGz4GL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Why is this novel worth your time?

This is a very well written debut novel from a writer who went on to a very strong career writing light, charming murder mysteries. It may well be that Moyes’s work was overlooked in her lifetime precisely because she chose the mode of light entertainment, but her career came at an interesting time in the history of detective fiction.

I remembered reading this novel many years ago (and all the other books in the series, because I’m that guy LOL) and upon reacquainting myself was surprised to learn that, at its core, this really is a classic timetable mystery. A timetable mystery, cherished by aficionados of Freeman Wills Crofts and others of the Humdrum school, is one where you have to follow along and figure out exactly where everyone was at every moment of a crucial period — someone is lying and this has generated an impossible crime.

Chapter 17, for instance, contains an extensive written timetable generated by the local police that goes for hours: here’s a snippet.

  • 1.45: Mario takes the lift up. Rosa talks to Pietro.
  • 1.59: Staines, Buckfast and Gerda leave the Olympia.
  • 2:00: Pietro takes the lift up, followed by the other three.
  • 2.25: They reach the top. Pietro speaks to Mario, overheard by Staines, who tells the others.

And so on. The idea is that you should be able to identify where the police have gone wrong before Inspector Tibbett, although it’s unlikely.

91CfzFnMPELIn the hands of a Freeman Wills Crofts, of course, this sort of plot line is a paean to the dogged determination of large numbers of faceless police officers under the direction of Inspector French, who interview everyone in the vicinity to make sure that (a) it actually WAS 1:59 when those three people left the Olympia Hotel, and (b) they were the people whom they were believed to be, and not someone impersonating them. Et cetera. In the wrong hands it can be tedious, and Crofts was not known for leavening this grinding down of alibis with much human interest.

Here, though, Moyes gives us full value in terms of characterization. All the characters are interesting on the surface and interesting in depth; they have a certain degree of realism and, frankly, the reader is enticed to speculate what it would be like to spend a holiday among these people having a good time on the slopes. This writer creates vivacious characters doing interesting things against a background of normal behaviour; everyone is polite and intelligent and nice, by and large. and the whole experience is a very pleasant one. The assessment of the timetable’s details is not a Croftsian grind, but rather the reader gets to know these interesting people a little bitter and figures out exactly why they may have lied about buying ski wax or a paperback novel at 2:48. It’s not always guilt; often, merely veniality.

Indeed Moyes surmounts a number of the problems that plague first authors and does so with skill and intelligence. There is just enough plot to keep the reader interested throughout; the smuggling and the village history and the murders all have skeins of plot that must be untwisted from the others. (A common first-novel issue is too much plotting — too many twists, which keeps the reader interested but is ruinous to believability. Not here.) The characterization is excellent. There are a couple of false notes; I was unable to believe in the Baron, for instance, especially his final actions within the novel, and the Baroness is not particularly realistic either (if she had really wanted to have an affair, she could have done a much better job of covering her tracks). But it’s clear that Moyes has been skiing in the Italian Alps and knows the types of people who make their living in that milieu, and also she has a keen eye for observing the types of people who take those skiing vacations.

51NUaXeWf4L._AC_US218_Although the time period is not as far away and difficult to understand as might be the details of everyday life in, say, 1921, there are still elements of the social fabric that will pique your attention. I wasn’t aware that currency restrictions were still in place in 1959 for British citizens traveling abroad; as I understand it, Britain was worried about its balance of payments and insisted that its citizens would not be allowed to take large sums of money out of the country and spend them. This adds interest to the plot when we realize that although you might have lots of money available in England, if you want to buy an expensive Italian sweater with the cash in your pocket, it affects the rest of your holiday. So there’s lots of opportunity for petty criminality in circumventing the currency regulations.  Similarly there is a smuggling sub-plot and for once it is reasonably realistic in its scale and economics.

I think this novel, and Moyes’s entire oeuvre, is also interesting in terms of when it was written, and how it fits into the overall flow of detective fiction. In 1959, the classic puzzle mystery was pretty much not being written at all. The readers of the time had access to material that was much more exciting — it was the time of Ross Macdonald and long-dead secrets from the past that come bubbling to the surface, not lighthearted mysteries where everything turns out happily. Women writers like Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Charity Blackstock and Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar were writing novels of domestic suspense and the “light mystery” was rather a thing of the past.

I don’t suggest that Moyes got a lot of critical attention for bucking the trend; perhaps she was considered to be turning out merely commercial fiction, but she seems to have been alone and mostly on her own, working away in a niche that no one else seems to have wanted to occupy. She wrote with intelligence and skill, and that evanescent quality that is so hard to attain, charm — and seems not to have been interested in domestic suspense. Is it fair to say she was an early precursor of the modern cozy? Maybe, and maybe not. Certainly the focus on characterization might lead us to think so, but the rather antique form of the timetable mystery is too strict and rigorous for most cozies.

I do recommend this novel, and all her earlier works. In Moyes’s later years she moved to the British Virgin Islands and set many of her books there, and they seem to me to be much less interesting. When you consider that Moyes was Peter Ustinov’s personal assistant for eight years, and also worked at British Vogue, that’s the vein of material that seems to provide the most interesting novels — she’s good at writing about fashion and leisure and the arts. I remember being particularly impressed by Murder a la Mode (1963) and Johnny Under Ground (1965); your mileage may vary.

9408635A note on editions

Patricia Moyes has been frequently in print in the years between 1959 and now; you’ll easily find an inexpensive paperback copy of many of her early works. Rue Morgue, for instance, brought out a trade paperback edition of this title in 2011. I note that a Fine copy in a Fine jacket of the first edition that’s personally inscribed to friends of the author is on sale today for US$450, and that seems about right for her first book. My favourite edition is an early Ballantine paperback seen here, with the skull wearing sunglasses in a red knitted ski helmet. Delightfully lurid and yet not too gruesome.

 

 

 

Quick Look: Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

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Fontana, their 4th paper edition from 1974

What’s this book about?

Elderly, fussy Mr. Pyke Period, quite fixated on lineage, is sharing his house with a brace of excellent servants and has recently taken a roommate, retired solicitor Harold Cartell (whose boxer bitch Pixie keeps the household in a constant uproar). Mr. Pyke Period is writing a book on etiquette and to that end hires Nicola Maitland-Mayne as a temporary typist, mostly because of her family connections. Harold Cartell’s family connections include being the second husband of Desiree, Lady Bantling, blowsy and rackety, who lives nearby with her third husband, the bibulous Bimbo Dodds and aspiring painter Andrew Bantling, Desiree’s son by her first (deceased) husband.  They also include his sister Constance “Connie” Cartell, loud and brash, whose slutty adopted niece “Moppett” and her unspeakably awful and vaguely criminal boyfriend Leonard Leiss are creating social havoc in the neighbourhood. Aspiring painter Andrew and semi-aristocratic typist Nicola meet and fall in love — Nicola will soon introduce him to her good friend, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, and her husband Roderick “Handsome” Alleyn, Scotland Yard Inspector. In fact, Nicola and Andrew are a common sight in Marsh mysteries, the young couple in the throes of new love, and they have a charming romantic relationship that serves as a relief from the unpleasant nature of most of the rest of the characters.

434051142After we meet the principals and the neighbourhood, Mr. Pyke Period gives a strained luncheon party at which his heirloom cigarette case disappears, and later that day Lady Bantling gives a hard-drinking scavenger hunt on the occasion of April Fool’s Day. Pairs of party guests are all over the neighbourhood searching for clues. It will be no surprise to the experienced mystery reader when Harold, who has quarrelled with or is an impediment, financial or social, to pretty much everyone in the novel, turns up at the bottom of a workmen’s ditch the next morning, having had a dirty great sewer pipe rolled down upon him.

Superintendent Alleyn takes charge and leads Inspector Fox through a brief investigation — brief, because it doesn’t really take a lot of effort to eliminate a great mass of red herring subplots and narrow the focus to motive and opportunity.  Everyone’s movements during the long and confused party are traced, and various lies, mistakes, and subterfuges are put to rest in a remarkably short time; the disappearance of the cigarette case, why the strained luncheon was so strained, why Connie Cartell got a letter of condolence the day before her brother died, the events of the party, and the criminous activities of loathsome Leonard and manipulative Moppet. Things come to a head when one character is bopped on the head,non-fatally, and Alleyn soon works out why and by whom. And since the murderer is helpfully the only person who meets a single physical criterion necessary to the killer, and the reader is directly shown that, it is not a huge achievement to figure out whodunnit just as fast as does Handsome Alleyn, but it does feel good to figure out the mystery, doesn’t it?

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1st edition, U.S.

Why is this worth reading?

I believe it’s generally agreed that the works of Ngaio Marsh begin to decline in quality, pretty much at this precise point in her career. Before this point, she had a long period of, say, 90% well-crafted books, and after this point the comments are of the “Well, this is good BUT” variety. Flaws begin to accrete: poor pacing, unbelievable characters, clearly manipulated plot structures, anachronistic social contexts.  Worst of all, the books got boring. Marsh has always been known for mishandling Act II; Alleyn meets the characters and interviews them, one per chapter,until the reader wants desperately for something to happen. Her skill in characterization frequently had to carry the reader through to Act III, when the solution begins to coalesce. In books written after this point, believe me, you’ll occasionally want to scream.

I have been known to be unkind about many of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries, although I’ve certainly read every single one a number of times. I don’t seem to like the same ones other people do, although there’s a certain pleasure in revisiting Marsh’s characterization skills even in ghastly failures like The Nursing Home Murders — or Last Ditch, which I reviewed here, and which actually made my “Die Before You Read” list. My personal favourite is Overture to Death (1939, a great year for art in many media) but I also think 1955’s Scales of Justice is a fine mystery novel. Most of the rest of her novels have various flaws, but the ones set in New Zealand have an assuredness of place that is sometimes absent in her work. By and large, though, my opinion is, if there are four Queens of Crime, she for me is #4.

That being said — I have recently re-read this novel, never having thought it particularly distinguished in the past, and I have to say, it has considerable skill and intelligence that I missed upon previous readings. Perhaps it’s that I’ve finally realized what she was setting out to do; this book has a Theme. It is About Something; there is a central concept at its core. In previous essays here, I’ve mentioned that for me an essential element of a well-written mystery novel is this kind of dovetailing of the pieces around a central concept. For instance, if a mystery’s central crime (the A plot) is focused around plagiarism at a university, then the B plot should eventually also resolve itself to be focused around plagiarism, in a different way. I used the imaginary example of a popular restaurant owner plagued by a blackmailer because, as it later turns out, her best recipes were stolen — or plagiarized. Everything in the book is sooner or later related to the theme of one person stealing another’s creative work.

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First edition

I can’t think of how I came to miss it before, but this book does have a theme that just revealed itself to me: the subtle one of family. In this book it includes pride in one’s family tree for Mr. Pyke Period (who has created his own family of servants); this contrasts with the light approach of Desiree, Lady Bantling, who is on her third marriage but still casually uses the title she acquired with the first husband. Charmingly, it includes an actual family tree in the novel — which I hadn’t realized until now is a big clue as to what Marsh was on about here. Nearly everyone in the book is somehow focused upon matrimony, or divorce, or lineage, or their lives have been affected by someone else’s concerns. Connie Cartell, for instance, is child- and boyfriend-free, but she has somehow “adopted” a young girl — to create her own family. Her niece Moppett and her ghastly boyfriend are creating a partnership like Bonnie and Clyde. Nicola and Andrew, of course, are clearly going to be affianced by the end of the novel. And from high emotions to low comedy … Howard’s boxer, Pixie, is in heat– she wants a family too! There’s a reasonably funny scene in the book where Pixie once again slips her leash, every male dog for miles ends up competing for her sexual attentions, and a huge dog fight ensues. At moments of such large-scale crisis, people get unguarded and important clues might appear…

Once I realized that there was this theme built into the structure of the book, I was quite charmed by how deftly the plot had been constructed. I began to see the way in which certain less prominent characters had been designed to provide counterpoint to a different view of family; there was a kind of organic quality to the book so that it seemed that the characters’ differences were merely casual and random, but they had to have been planned. It’s a difficult thing to do for any mystery writer, because it means the book has to be consciously mapped from the outset to make sure that all the pieces contribute to the theme. The late Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels contain great examples of this technique, where the crime that Wexford is solving has strange reverberations in the activities of his family — at the end of the novel, you realize that “everybody has the same problems”. That’s what Marsh does here, and it’s very well done indeed.

I’m more used to finding mysteries that are constructed like this in what I might call more serious works; novelists like Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar and Fredric Brown, telling dark stories of how people deal with, for instance, insanity. It’s a nice surprise to find that level of construction in what “Francis Iles” (Anthony Berkeley) said in the Guardian (at least according to the blurb on my Fontana paperback), is “Light, entertaining and disastrously readable.” You know, it is. It’s fast-moving, clever, funny, and she’s managed to avoid the sag of Act II by telescoping the action into a very brief time period and having engrossing sub-plots.

It was a pleasure to discern this structure because I felt pleased at being able to find more ability in her work than I sometimes have. For many readers she is a favourite, and it’s hard to be objective about someone who admittedly has a reputation for writing great mysteries that will endure my opinion. Perhaps someday I’ll write about why there are so many of her books where I say to myself, “I like this book, BUT …”.  In this case, I learned something about how to structure a mystery novel and had a chance to appreciate why she really is a Queen of Crime. You may not care for the general air of unpleasantness among most of the main characters, as I didn’t for many years, but I hope you will now be able to discern the great bone structure beneath the surface of this novel. Enjoy.

Berkeley F-777My favourite edition

Most editions of this novel have been relatively undistinguished. In 1974, the edition with the cover art shown at the head of this piece and which I read to produce it, I remember being chagrined because it was the signal that Fontana had changed its mind about the uniform edition they had been doing with a photographic representation of the dead body on the cover — as my readers know, I like that idea for some reason! So there is no photo edition of this particular title. I’d have to go with Berkley F-777 shown to the left, although it too was a signal; it’s about when Berkley switched from small size paperbacks to a taller format, and the industry followed along. This was from the early 60s, and if it had been produced a few years earlier, the book would be cut off at her calves. So the size was unusual and “modern” for its time, although it doesn’t seem so to us. And I like the cheerful way that the striking cover art flirts with giving away the secret of the contents.