It’s fitting that Noah’s review of Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959), is what first brought the book to my attention, because the novel exemplifies for me a strata of fiction that I only got thinking about on account of Noah’s own, far superior, ruminations on the subject. Much like Murder on Safari (1938) by Elspeth Huxley, contemporary familiarity with the milieu would probably see this classified as ‘cozy’ these days — but to do so would be to ignorantly overlook the newness of this sort of setting at the time of writing. I’m tempted to call these Travelogue Mysteries, where the setting appeals as much as the crime on account of how novel it would have been at the time.
As you might expect from the title, Patricia Moyes’ debut finds us amongst the pistes and peaks and, you might expect, there’s a dead body to be explained and, as you might expect, we have some poor policeman on holiday to whom it falls to unravel the thing. Except, well, Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy aren’t strictly on holiday: word has come down from above that the ski lodge Bella Vista in the Italian Alps just might be the hub of an international smuggling ring, and so the Tibbetts are sent in with eyes and ears open. And Things — not Great Things, just Things — are expected of Tibbett, who has something of a reputation following him around:
Henry Tibbett was not a man who looked like a great detective. In fact, as he would be the first to point out, he was not a great detective, but a conscientious and observant policeman, with an occasional flair for intuitive detection which he called “my nose”… A small man, sandy-haired and with pale eyebrows and lashes which emphasised his general air of timidity, he had spent most of his forty-eight years trying to avoid trouble — with a conspicuous lack of success.
I have in recent years found myself very much warming to the ordinary policeman over the tic-ridden, obscure proclamation-making, larger-than-life ‘character’ investigator, and the Tibbetts (for they very much come as a pair) are simply wonderful. There is no conscious attempt to do anything wacky or demonstrative with them — they don’t have the badinage of Jeff and Haila Troy, nor the sickening pomposity of Lord Peter and Harriet — they’re just a couple who know and trust each other and are very comfortable in how they support each other. Even that makes it sounds more explicitly-stated than it is, but after years of Gideon Fell’s wife slowly fading into the wallpaper, or of Mrs. Joseph French garnering a one-line mention in chapter 24, I enjoyed spending not just time with a detecting couple but with such a charming detecting couple.
And in fact the characters here are really what raises this above the norm. Our skiing party is made up of some ten people, and they’re generally well-drawn, sympathetic, and true to life. Take the hen-pecked Colonel Buckfast, seen skiing on the first day:
For a few brief weeks each year, they realised, the Colonel entered his own element: became a man liberated from his life, his wife, his environment, his own limitations…
The graceful figure swung in a snow-scattering arc to stop beside them, and instantly became familiar: an over-hearty, portly, cliché-ridden, middle-aged man, making maddeningly predictable little jokes and she stamped the snow off his skis.
Later on, when interviewed about the first of two guests to be murdered, he approaches the matter of the deceased’s personality “like a hippopotamus on tiptoe” — maddening, yes, but also very much exactly what this man would do. This is one of the very few GAD novels I’ve read where, when the detective uses in their closing summation an expression akin to “But X wasn’t that sort of person…”, I genuinely felt like it came from what we knew about X as a person rather than because the author needed X not to be that sort of person in order to allow their solution. True, I didn’t need all 48 of the scene-setting pages at the start in order to feel this, but I enjoyed getting to know them all, and Moyes’ travelogue is immensely readable, communicating the insular nature of the nearby two without a sniff of umbrage, and imbuing her community with a sense of, well, of community that comes to explain many of the delightful developments (the Sudden Recall of Many Wealthy American Ladies among them).
The plot, too, is enjoyably structured, and it’s perhaps the only book that really comes to life in its interviews, these familiar faces responding differently to the accusation and suspicion doing the rounds, and seemingly everyone with a secret to hide. And how these are teased out also works very well, with there being nearly no instances of someone withholding information just to secure a later reveal; the motives are always deeper than that, and when something is merely held back for the sake of propriety, well, rest assured that will soon be undone. The clewing is generally great throughout until, when resolving the second murder — borderline impossible, by my reckoning, not that I’d be bothered either way — Moyes undoes most of this in resorting to lines like:
He asked Emmy a question, and very surprised, she answered, “Yes, I suppose so. That morning, but what has that got to do with it?”