I don’t think anyone would doubt that I’m out of my stated era of the Golden Age reviewing a book from 1961, and there isn’t even an impossibility in this one to justify it on those grounds. But Patricia Moyes’ debut Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959) was clothed in the fashions of GAD, and the series bears further investigation for that alone. This second novel is afflicted a little by the narrative periphrasis that betokens later-era crime writing — chapter one should be called ‘Here’s the Cast’ and chapter two ‘Sure, I Understand Sailing, But I Don’t Know How to Communicate It (Glossary of Terms)’ — but, once past that, things improve significantly.
It’s true that I generally find myself a little impatient for incident in my detective fiction, but Moyes burns a slow fuse very neatly: foul play in the recent death of sailor Pete Rawnsley, a key figure in the small boating commune of Berrybridge Haven, is first hinted at, with its impact and connotations felt among the people we meet, before the story is explicitly relayed and that second-chapter glossary comes in handy for maritime ingénue Henry Tibbett to have legitimate reason to suspect foul play.
“Oh, Henry — not again,” Emmy protested. “Can’t we have a single holiday in peace?”
One by one, motives begin to insinuate themselves among the gaps left in conversation — with hints at Rawnsley’s unyielding nature where the law was concerned, and his loose morals around women like the vivacious, tomboyish Anne Petrie — and soon everyone from harbour-master Herbert Hole and barman Bob Calloway to artist David Crowther and Colin Street, Anne’s fiancé, is in the frame for something suspicious.
“I see,” said Henry. “Any more suspects?”
“That’s all I can think of, off-hand,” said Colin. “Isn’t it enough?”
“Not for a really ingenious detective story,” said Henry, grinning.
This works partly on account of the community Moyes builds up, keeping a clear focus on the (yes, somewhat predictable) relationships in a well-defined group. Even the awkward, gentrified bonhomie of landed gentry Sir Simon Trigg-Willoughby, who seeks to involve himself as part of the community while also being “obviously not ill-pleased by the gratifying number of raised caps and tugged forelocks” that accompany his presence anywhere, plays a part in defining the tightness of the Berrybridge set. And the forthcoming mayoral election, in which four candidates are battling it out for a split of forty-seven votes, is yet another chance of grievances to be aired…albeit in hushed tones lest the people at the next table overhear and upset things for you.
And then, just as everything is gearing up nicely…ugh, it grinds to a halt. Chapters 8 and 9 can be skipped and should be titled ‘The Second Victim Loudly Provides Motives for Their Murder’, and then Henry keeps his suspicions to himself for no good reason other than Anne more or less throws herself at him and asks him to — it’s a little bit creepy, his behaviour here, given that he’s already ignored such a request from his loving wife and friends, and is so adamant about his reasons for pursuing such ends:
The coroner’s verdict had been perfectly straightforward. And yet…there were inconsistencies. Pick up a loose thread of circumstance, follow it through the labyrinth of events — and where would it lead? Perhaps to havoc and misery in the lives of a pleasant group of people. Better to leave it alone. If you can. If you can…