RogerBW's Blog

Murder a la Mode, Patricia Moyes 28 August 2020

1963 mystery, fourth in the series about Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett. As Style magazine is putting together its coverage of the Paris fashion show, one of the editors drinks tea full of cyanide…

It's taken until book four of this series for us to see Tibbett in what we're told is his native habitat, police work in London. And although he doesn't (yet?) have a halo of assistants like Alleyn, I think the setting works for him: he may be thrown by the unfamiliar environment of a fashion magazine and the people who work there, but he knows London. An additional complication is that while his wife Emmy isn't directly on the scene this time his niece is an up-and-coming model working with the magazine, and of course she wants to take a hand in the detection too…

Of course, what he gets here is a bunch of intelligent and articulate suspects with their own embarrassments to cover up, not all of which are germane to the murder. Everyone says that the murdered editor had been having an affair, but the actual evidence doesn't quite seem to match up. There are violations of medical ethics and the treatment of any whiff of actual homosexuality, even from someone who puts on all the stereotyped airs, as a cause for scandal. It's very early-1960s, feeling much more authentic than The China Governess or Death at the Dolphin from around the same time, and one can see in retrospect some traces of the things that would become Swinging London in a few years' time.

It was, Henry thought, the epitome of where an artist should live, and he felt suddenly humble. He realized in a flash that his own taste in interior decoration—on which he was inclined to pride himself—was the artificial product of a middle-class mentality abetted by magazines and advertisements. With shame and insight, he recognized that all he and Emmy had done in their own home was to create a cheap reproduction of the currently fashionable conception of gracious living. Their choice of furniture, curtains, ornaments, and colours had been guided, however subtly, by outside influences. Now, he found himself in an apartment which had been put together by somebody who relied entirely on his own judgment, and damn the consequences. In a bitter moment of self-revelation, Henry acknowledged that if he had done the same thing, the result would have been disastrous. Here, it was triumphant.

I picked up some of the clues but didn't solve the mystery, and yet I don't think I was unfairly denied information – a difficult channel for a writer to steer down, and Moyes does it rather well. We are denied some of the information that Tibbett has, but at that point he's solved the case but is trying to set things up so that there'll be enough evidence for a prosecution; again, it's a tough effect to pull off without annoying this reader. I'm rather getting to like Moyes' style.

So now, while Henry's physical self snored gently, his subconscious being sat alertly on the same sofa, making precise and penetrating notes. To his dreaming mind, the key to the mystery seemed to be within his grasp when he wrote "The Duchess of Basingstoke owns the cheetah," and the word sequence "Healy-Helen-Hell," which he wrote down several times, assumed enormous, metaphysical significance.

Given the subject matter, of course there are shades of The Fashion in Shrouds and Death in High Heels here, and the influence of Ngaio Marsh is very clear; but Brand, Allingham and Marsh (born in 1907, 1904 and 1895 respectively) were fundamentally pre-war in outlook, for all they did their best to adapt, and Moyes was a generation younger than them (born in 1923, and lied about her age to join the WAAF in 1939). I'm starting to think I may have found an unappreciated treasure here.

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See also:
The Fashion in Shrouds, Margery Allingham
Death in High Heels, Christianna Brand

Previous in series: Death on the Agenda | Series: Henry Tibbett | Next in series: Falling Star

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