#460: Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959) by Patricia Moyes

Dead Men Don't Skistar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
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?”

Dead Men Don't Ski F&MBut, well, you can’t have ’em all.  A novelist so successfully working in so many aspects of history, geography, skiing, and the local community into the characters, their faults, and the resulting inevitable solution is obviously doing a lot right, and slack shall be cut when so much of this debut is this damn readable.  I enjoyed it so much, I’ve already bought another twelve Patricia Moyes books — they’ve been reissued by Felony & Mayhem recently (see cover left), but my edition is the Henry Holt one pictured up top and I really like these older paperback editions.  I’m not going to make Latter-Day Crime Queen claims just yet, but rest assured that you can expect much more of Patricia Moyes and the Tibbetts in the years ahead.  Hairy Aaron, let’s hope this one wasn’t a flash in the pan, eh?

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See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Moyes is good at adding in engaging nuggets of social and political information, such as Tibbett being shocked at it costing 5 shilling for a bath. During the book one of the young society figures, Caroline Whittaker, temporarily seems to fall in love with the good looking ski instructor. It was amusing to read that even at this early point this was already deemed to be a social cliché, making you wonder whether it has always been that way.

Noah @ Noah’s Archives: 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.)

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: If you enjoy a good old-fashioned murder mystery, one in which clues are hidden in long and complicated timetables (this one has not one but two of those) then this is for you. Me, I quite liked it but also found that it dragged a bit – at just before the 200-page mark Tibbett claims to have it all solved and then another murder is committed, which makes the novel go on for another 100 pages, which for this reader was definitely too long,

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Black Beadle from last week because both feature a character who has changed their name to distance themself from their past life.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card I’m going to use the presence of skiing lessons to fulfil the category At a school.

33 thoughts on “#460: Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959) by Patricia Moyes

  1. I assure you this is not a flash in the pan! If anything, Moyes gets better. She has a way of mastering a different environment with each case, but most of them are not travelogues! (Whew!) It’s only when she starts to diverge from her regular style that she sort of comes a cropper. But, by and large, that doesn’t happen till the end. You’ve got some fine reading ahead of you.

    My first Moyes was The Season of Snows and Sins, another ski-set mystery. (I believe Moyes loved skiing and sailing, which also figures prominently in her books.) This one has a different feel from most of her books and a divergent narrative style. It’s also a wonderful book, if not as much a classic mystery as the others. Strictly speaking, wouldn’t you call Moyes a Silver Age writer – hence, the finer attention to characterization without sacrificing the clueing.

    I’ve toyed with re-reading her; I’ve forgotten most of the endings. But I have this plan forming for 2019, and it won’t give me much time to add Moyes regularly to my list! I’m glad you enjoyed the Tibbetts and their first case.

    • She’s definitely Silver Age, because she’s writing this debut at a time that isn’t serious considered as GAD except by the most desperate outlaws. I think she’ll have Lorac’s eye for the uncommon, too, as she brings a lot in here that develops a potentially standard-fare whodunnit into something that lives and breathes. I’m delighted there’s more depth and breadth in her yet — both you and Noah have assure dme as much — and I’m excited to see where this leads…

      Look at me, reading borderline crime novels. I’ll be a Cozy Cat Mystery acolyte in five years…

  2. Thanks for the shoutout JJ 🙂 This is a very decent GAD style mystery, no question (including some national stereotypes and the redundant second murder to add another 100 pages for a somewhat long-winded final third). I did very much prefer her later book, Who Is Simon Warwick? (1978)

    • I found Simon Warwick befor this one, actually, and was trying to remember why the title sounded familiar…only for a quick search to bring up your review. However, once I had her debut — especially after Noah’s fulsome praise — I couldn’t pass it up.

      There will be plenty more of Moyes to come on TIE, so maybe I’ll be able to entice you back into a third go.

  3. Thanks for the review. 😊 For you to have bought the subsequent 12 titles in the series on the strength of the debut – I’d expected a five-star rating. 😼 But, alas, it must have been because of the clue-ing at the end.

    My first foray into Moyes was Arcturus’s “Who Saw Her Die” – which I took issue with for the clue-ing, if my memory is correct. I read “Dead Men Don’t Ski” after that, and liked it more.

    • This was, for its sheer unexpectedness in being much more classical than I might have otherwise expected, cruising to a 5 star rating, ony for those disclosure issues to rear their head with 30 pages to go. Goddamn you, Detective Novels, why do we bargain so much on your endings?!

      The hasty buying of more was partly on assurance from Noah that I’d be a fool to miss out, so I’m pleased to see that borne out in the comments here. The last author I bought in such bulk was Crofts, and we’re yet to see how that works out. It would appear I’m in the mood to be frivolous…!

  4. I have a handful of Moyes books now but the only one I’ve read so far is The Curious Affair of the Third Dog, which I remember I quite enjoyed. I’ll definitely read more by her.

    • If nothing else, she does have some wonderful titles: Season of Snow and Sins, and aA Six-Letter Word for Death being possibly my favourites, and …Third Dog appropriately following.

  5. A great and enticing review, JJ. There have been two Moyes on my pile for ages, Dead Men Don’t Ski and Death and the Dutch Uncle (for obvious reasons), but have always pushed them down the list for no good reason at all. So I’ll remedy that in 2019.

    By the way, Rue Morgue Press had the funniest book cover for Dead Men Don’t Ski depicting a cranky looking Grim Reaper riding a ski-lift.

    • Do I infer from your “for obvious reasons” that DatDU is an impossibility? Interesting if so . She’s not in Adey at all.

      The one here is borderline impossible — it spoils nothing to say that it involves someone being shot on a ski lift when there was no-one else on their side (going down) and the people coming up were too far away to have fired the shot with any accuracy (indeed, the victim may not even have been in sight of the up-comers). It’s fun, but probably not a strict impossibility when you get down to it.

  6. I think Moyes is eminently readable, maybe just a bit on the light side. There is generally less focus on plot and more on the characters. But I think almost all of her books are eminently readable.

      • Well, eminence is no bad quality for readability. I’ve read many books that wouldn’t even pass this bar, so at least you’re clear in your opinions 🙂

        Also, I know I’m supposed to be emailing you, Christian. Apologies, been a busy week. Will hopefully get to “it” soon.

  7. Thanks for the mention and I’m glad you enjoyed this one. Also impressed you tracked down 12 more Moyes – was it in one go? Are you going to read them chronologically? I really should get around to trying more books by Moyes so I shall use the recommendations in the comments to give me some ideas. Got to keep the TBR pile feed after all!

    • I imagine I shall read them chronologically — Moyes has a big enouch oeuvre that I think there’s some merit in seeing how she develops as an author (and I’m fascinated by the sometimes two- or three-year gaps between books).

      And, yes, good grief, feed that TBR. If it gets hungry, it might turn on you…

  8. I also read this this year, because of the raft of reviews from fellow fans. I enjoyed it, though strongly disliked the timetables of when the ski-lift went up, down and all about: most off-putting. And I claim to have solved the murders without any reference to stupid alibis…
    I liked her Murder a la Mode, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I, given its fashion setting and my blog title…

    • As an avowed fan of Croftian approaches, I wasn’t much a fan of the timetables here (indeed, it’s perfectly possible to solve the first murder without them…and it would be the second if certain information wasn’t so blatantly withheld). I appreciate Moyes was trying to contrast Tibbett’s more relaxed and informal approach with that of Capitano Spezzi, but it was a zzzzzzzz to far even for me, Moira!

  9. I think the second one I read was Death on the Agenda, which was pretty easy to solve, but it did a nicely subtle job of depicting the Tibbetts’ marriage in trouble. The one where Emmy visits her old RAF gang was even better. She’s not an author I can rave rave rave over, but she delivers the goods most of the time. Who Is Simon Warwick? is one of the best!

    • Who is Simon Warwick? is another Titchborne Claimant parallel, right? Man, with The Crooked Hinge and Brat Farrar as well this uis almost becoming a subgenre all of its very own…

  10. Moyes did write an impossible crime mystery: Murder Fantastical (surprisingly not mentioned in any comments above). Excellent! And I know you’d enjoy that one. Surreal events, a loony family similar to the Potts clan in Queen’s There Was an Old Woman, and a well thought impossible crime. It’s the only Moyes mystery I have truly enjoyed and read to the very end. Others I’ve dumped at the halfway mark (or sooner!). I’m sure I read a slew of these when I was a teen and they were brand new back then, but I don’t remember one of the plots.

    • John, I think people take sides on Murder Fantastical much as they do to Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys. They either like the kooky family or they hate it. That is certainly Moyes’ attempt at slapstick comedy, just as Season of Snows and Sins rings of Charlotte Armstrong or Ruth Rendell.

      I think the Potts clan beats ’em all!

    • Aaaaand, of course, I turn eagerly to my shelves and discover that Murder Fantastical is not one of the titles I have. Dammit! Thanks for letting me know, though — if I enjoy another two or three as much as I enjoyed this one then I’ll definitely track down the remaining books of hers, and it’s nice to know that something is going to turn out to be a legit impossibility, s opposed to something that seems impossible and is actually not for one of the sundry reasons authors use to get out of having to construct such a difficult plot.

    • There’s been so much on this very theme both here and on the GAD group on Facebook that I’m fairly surprised she’s mentioned so infrequently among the community. Sure, she skews heavily into the Silver Age, but so many people appear enthusiastic about her books you’d think someone at some point would go “Oh, yeah, and try Patricia Moyes”.

      Well, they did, which is how I ended up reading this, but you’d think it would happen more frequently. Well, now I’m here to pick up that slack…

        • Symonds undervalued? Might it have something to do with the roaring disdain he poured down upon our chosen enthusiasm, d’ya think? 🤔

          • Naw. Have you read Bloody Murder? It’s not as some have portrayed it. Symons was a mystery fanatic. But he wasn’t an uncritical one. (BTW, what’s your opinion of Ngaio Marsh? 😉)

            • Oh, sure, I’m just suggesting that he has a reputation — I haven’t read Bloody Murder, but I’m keen to.

              As for Marsh, she wrote a couple of good books — Death in a White Tie (which is actually very good), Death at the Bar, possibly another one — but I find her tedious in the main. But, hey, people day the same about Rupert Penny and I’m big enough to admit a pluracy of opinions on anything 😀

  11. Pingback: #470: Remembering Noah Stewart | The Invisible Event

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