RogerBW's Blog

Johnny Under Ground, Patricia Moyes 25 February 2022

1965 mystery, sixth in the series about Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett. Tibbett's wife Emmy is invited to a reunion of staff from the fighter control station where she worked as a young woman during the war. They get together a plan to write a history of the station, with a focus on "Beau" Guest, the injured former pilot who committed suicide by aircraft. Or did he…? Somebody doesn't want the past uncovered.

And of course Moyes was a WAAF herself, and had some idea of how Dowding's control system worked from the perspective of one of the "plotting girls". What detail there is is accurate, and it's not over-egged the way it might be in a more modern book by someone who found the whole business fascinating from the outside.

Because this book was written, and is set, in that gap after the war and before the revival of interest in the war, when people were just fed up with the older generation going on and on and on about how wonderful it had all been, and really didn't want to hear about it any more. (Someone mentions that the Battle of Britain was "a long time ago" and not really something that sells books any more, and that the market for biographies of war heroes died out in the 1950s.) This resonates with my own youth, but not since the publicity machine got restarted in the 1980s (I suspect, when they realised that a lot of the survivors probably wouldn't make it to the 50th anniversary); now there's been enough positive association for so long that politicians casually invoke "Blitz spirit" as though they had the slightest idea of what it was like.

Even if Moyes does quote "They shall not grow old" [sic].

But a suspect explains his philanthropy towards his old mates thus:

"Oh, yes." Price was very serious. "Oh, indeed yes. Young people nowadays have everything made easy for them. The generation which deserves our pity is the one which is now in its forties. The generation whose young lives were wrecked by the war, and which is now conveniently forgotten. I myself belong to an earlier epoch, of course, but I had the unforgettable privilege of serving in His Majesty's Forces alongside those splendid young men. The fact that they are no longer so young should surely entitle them to more consideration rather than less."

and Moyes clearly feels that's not the whole story:

Henry was aware of mixed emotions. On the face of it, Price's sentiments were unimpeachable and should have sounded attractive to someone like Henry, who was in his late forties and had served as a soldier during the Second World War. Nevertheless, there was something nauseating about the whole thing. Perhaps it was Price's calm use of the word "wrecked" that irritated him. The war had been an experience; like most real experiences, a mixture of the squalid, the beautiful, the boring, the amusing, and the horrific. Some people—a lot of people—had been killed. For them, the war had written a full stop, and Henry, personally, remembered his friends among them vividly and frequently and believed in a muddled sort of way that it was important to do this. As for the others, they had survived and resumed their lives in the postwar world. It angered him to hear those lives referred to as "wrecked."

You can move on and live; or you can stay in the past and make it the One Big Thing that you care about and where you spend all your mental effort; and the various characters do a good job of showing various ways they've found of moving on, or not.

This is also happening in that transitional time between people talking about the Servant Problem and servants simply not being mentioned at all because nobody significant had them any more. Tibbett doesn't employ anyone, but a few other people do.

Grudgingly, the butler went on to divulge the information that Mr. Price was a bachelor who lived alone in this house, attended by himself, Albert Bates, and Mrs. Bates, who acted as cook-housekeeper. A Mrs. Manfield came in daily to attend to the rough work, and Mr. Summers was responsible for the garden. Henry felt faintly repelled at the thought of four adult human beings spending their lives ministering to the wants of one lonely, elderly man.

Various people are at various times for or against the biography project, for reasons of their own, and each player has a set of secrets they want to keep hidden.

Emmy does come in for a bit of a rough time; even once she knows she's in danger, she casually wanders off out of communication, and is drugged into unconsciousness for most of the climax. It's a shame; she's a core part of the earlier sections, and I'd have liked to see her get some personal closure while her husband brought the criminal(s) to justice. Instead, she isn't even allowed to wake up by the end of the book.

V qb svaq vg senaxyl vzcynhfvoyr gung n qrnq obql pbhyq unir tbar haqvfpbirerq va n pbapergr nve-envq furygre ba na npgvir onfr. Rira vs gur onfr jnf fuhg qbja vzzrqvngryl nsgre gur jne, gung jnf gjb lrnef nsgre gur qrngu; rira vs gur furygre jnf erzbgr sebz gur znva ohvyqvatf naq eneryl hfrq, jbhyqa'g fbzrbar unir tbar va ng fbzr cbvag gb purpx gung gur ebbs jnfa'g penpxvat? Jbhyqa'g gur pbecfr unir nggenpgrq navznyf?

But this is relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things (and could have been fixed without major surgery to the plot). The characters are variously horrible but one can at least see them as characters rather than as stereotypes. I think Moyes can even be forgiven a bit of self-indulgence.

Henry took Emmy with him to Scotland Yard the following morning. As they drove through the Chelsea traffic, he said suddenly, "I hope to God I don't bungle this."

"Of course you won't."

Henry changed gears with a touch of gloom. "It's all very well for you to say that," he said. "As though this were the last chapter of a murder mystery, where the brilliant detective reveals all and unmasks the criminal."

"Well, isn't it?"

No, there are two more chapters after this. I enjoyed this book hugely, and am definitely coming to regard Moyes as a forgotten mistress of the English detective story.

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Previous in series: Falling Star | Series: Henry Tibbett | Next in series: Murder Fantastical

  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 11:59am on 25 February 2022

    THE WORLD AT WAR, from which my teenaged self learned most of what I now know about WW2 that wasn't told me by my parents was 1973.

    And I think that was prompted by the realisation that the senior officers were now getting on a bit and the junior ones were willing to rabbit on for hours. Admittedly the previous success of THE GREAT WAR was also an influence.

    A little before the 80s is what I'm saying.

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:58pm on 25 February 2022

    I thought the actual quote was "They shall grow not old...". I know it's grammatically old fashioned, but like the King James bible it sounds so much better when read aloud.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 01:35pm on 25 February 2022

    Yes, quite so - I would expect Moyes to have got it right. (But I gather that it's been a common error for a while; perhaps I was just lucky in that the people I first heard it from were the sort of people who cared.)

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:52pm on 26 February 2022

    People are either deliberately modernising the way it is said, or are just getting it wrong through ignorance. But among the other things it is, "They shall grow not old..." is also poetry and the original words matter for the poetry to work. I've heard it said incorrectly pretty much consistently for at least 20 years, and it really annoys me. Can't people do some basic research and read it direct from the original text? I'm also annoyed that I'm meant to be thinking of the dead and their sacrifice, and some moron getting the text wrong yanks me out of the moment and into feeling annoyed with them.

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