Friday, March 23, 2018

Playing Wacky Families: Murder Fantastical (1967), by Patricia Moyes

Hooray! There is a new edition, after
34 years, of Silver Age mystery classic
Murder Fantastical
courtesy of the fine folks at
Felony & Mayhem
Portrayals of eccentric, decaying gentry families have produced some of the most memorable of Golden Age British detective fiction.  Who can forget (though some naysayers, critical descendants of Edmund Wilson, perhaps would like to) Ngaio Marsh's Lampreys, Margery Allingham's Palinodes, Agatha Christie's Ankatells, all of whom outrageously and entertainingly strutted upon the stage of fictional murder and mystery in the 1940s?  Sterling Silver Age detective fiction writer Patricia Moyes (1923-2000) was writing in this lustrous Golden Age tradition two decades later when in 1967 she published Murder Fantastical, the seventh of her nineteen Henry and Emmy Tibbett mysteries.  Along with the retrospective Johnny Under Ground, which appeared the previous year, it constitutes a high point in her corpus of crime fiction, which is now being brought back into print by the folks at Felony & Mayhem, purveyors of fine vintage crime fiction.

Murder Fantastical concerns the dotty Manciple family, of the ghastly Victorian pile Cregwell Grange in the village of Cregwell in Fenshire (not far removed from London: Essex, perhaps?) and the queer death of objectionably nouveau riche Raymond Mason--a bookie, if you please, who has the effrontery to manicure the nails on his provokingly stubby fingers and, worse yet, "to pay cash on the barrelhead" to local tradesmen--unlike the real gentry of course, who, as gentry will, make you chase the trolley to get your lolly. 

1984 American pb edition, part of
a splendid series by Owl, which
during the Eighties and Nineties
reprinted all of Moyes' mysteries
A recent arrival in Cregwell, Mason purchased the gatekeeper's lodge at Cregwell Grange from Major George Manciple and his wife, Violet, who since inheriting the Grange from George's father, a distinguished Headmaster (called simply "the Head" by the family), have had trouble keeping up appearances, shall we say, not to mention ceilings and walls. 

On the first page of the novel, John Adamson, Chief Constable of Fenshire and owner of Cregwell Manor, is rung up by George Manciple, who tells Adamson in his circuitous way that Mason has been shot dead in the driveway of the Grange.  At the time George was out firing on his gun range, but he insists that he was not the one who potted the poor bookie, despite the fact that he, George, was most decidedly not getting along with his nettlesome new neighbor at the Lodge, who, it seems, ambitiously had designs on the Grange itself.

In the classic manner of Golden Age British mystery, the locals want nothing to do with this case involving local bigwigs of long standing (even if they're financially imperiled ones), which brings in Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett of the Yard, Patricia Moyes' clever sleuth in all nineteen of her detective novels. 

It also brings in Henry's keen wife, Emmy, who Henry always seems to bring along with him on his investigations, for no really plausible reason that I can see, aside from giving readers a female investigator as well as a male one, in those days when women did not occupy high ranks in law enforcement.  (He's not the first fictional Yard man to do this, however.)

As Moyes puts it, "Emmy was allowed to come along [ostensibly to visit an old school friend, wife of the local medico] on condition that she kept well out of the way of all police activity."  Okay, sure.  Emmy adds to the book, however, getting some helpful gossip and playing a role at the climax of the novel.  (At the village fete, of course--you knew there would have to be a fete, and quite a fete it is.)  The Tibbett series benefits from her presence as something beyond the stereotypical "supportive wife."

Emmy's help is especially welcome, because on the day of Mason's suspicious slaying, the Grange was more crowded than usual, providing numerous suspects for the consideration of Henry (and, happily, the reader).  Besides George and Violet (who has to do the housekeeping and cooking herself, for the most part; there's a splendid feminist passage about this I may quite in a future post), there are:

You gotta get a pretty girl on the
cover! early Ballantine pb ed.
old Miss Dora Manciple, George's nonagenarian aunt, a devotee of spiritualism (or maybe spiritism?)

George's brothers, Sir Claude Manciple, distinguished director of an atomic research station (he seems surprisingly normal), and Edwin, crossword and clarinet playing retired Bishop of Bugolaland, in Aftrica (he's an odd duck indeed)

Sir Claude's nature and health faddist wife, Lady Ramona

George and Violet's beautiful and brilliant daughter, Maud, lately hired by Sir Claude

Maud's dapper and double-handled fiancee Julian Manning-Richards ("he comes form Bugolaland...of fine old Imperial stock")

Then there's Frank Mason, Socialist son of the murdered man (to my mind his thinking is too loose to be dignified, if you will, with the term Marxist), who, in the tradition of classic British mystery, is always tediously spouting off about the rights of the working man and in the process is made to look rather an ass for doing so.  Take that, you troublesome, estates taxing leftists!  To be sure, this is the kind of thing that did tend to turn off people like Raymond Chandler and Julian Symons, but it's much in keeping with classic British mystery tradition.

American hardcover edition
if you think this an
atrocious over recall that
this was the era of acid and
Yellow Submarine, though
the novel itself could have
been published during
 the age of art deco
Before Henry, with Emmy's help, cracks this complicated case there will be another death, but eventually order will be restored, for the most part, in rather a satisfying way.  Murder Fantastical is the quintessence of cozy crime: smartly, though not showily, written, with a solid puzzle that the reader has a perfectly fair chance of solving for herself.  All in all it makes a most pleasant sojourn to a comfortable if complacent corner of England, possibly imaginary, wherein many of us, suffering the buffets of modern life, like to spend a little time, at least in books.

Fifty years ago Anthony Boucher selected the novel as one of his 13 favorites of 1967 (along with Catherine Aird's A Most Contagious Game, Charlotte Armstrong's Lemon in a Basket and Emma Lathen's Murder Against the Grain); and it's not at all surprising that he did so.  The classic crime fiction loving Boucher called it a "faultlessly plotted and clued puzzle, rich in humor, character and sheer Englishness.

While it's not up to the level of Agatha Christie's best work as a puzzle (to be sure, comparatively few books are), it's certainly as "English" as they come, in the sense that fans of classic mystery will readily appreciate--a true Anglophile's delight.

Coming soon: some more on Moyes place in the genre and her background too.  How much did Murder Fantastical actually draw on real life?


  1. It's at least half a century since last I thought of Patricia Moyes. Thank you very, very much indeed for the reminder. She was far from my favorite GADer, but she was (I thought at the time) well worth reading.

  2. You are welcome! When I'm reminding someone of an author after a half-a-century, I consider that I am doing my job! As I will discuss, she used to be rather highly regarded in the US, and I think she wasa good choice for revival.

  3. I enjoyed all of her mysteries when I was younger, and have re-read a few recently and enjoyed them. I have copies of all of them still. Now I look forward to rereading this one.

    1. I'm going back through some of her books and enjoying them, though the thriller stuff in some of the later ones doesn't thrill me.

  4. Great book! I've yet to find a Moyes book that surpasses this one. Of all her novels this seems to be the most popular and well reviewed on the vintage mystery blogs. There at least five more posts I know of including mine (a very brief one for a change) that were all written in the past two years.

    1. Yes, I felt a bit guilty doing a post on a book that has been rather blogged already, but I thought I had some new things to say about Moyes, with her coming back in print. Same reason I haven't actually tended to blog that much Christie, concentrating on some of her more obscure numbers, like Parker Pyne and Destination Unknown.

  5. I loved this book. The scene where the strangely garbed retired cleric marches to a neighbor's house with clarinet in hand and requests butter still makes me laugh.

    1. Yes, there are some funny bits in there, I thought I might mention some in a later post. There's some connection to her family too!

  6. Loved her back in the day. And this is one of the best. Henry and Emmy made a great pair.

    1. I'm glad Henry broke rules to include Emmy in the fun, if you will.

  7. I remember this book very well, not the least because of the family. Glad to see it reviewed and revived.

  8. I've never read any Moyes -- probably because, as you say, she seems to fall more into the Silver Age than GAD and so I've rarely seen anything about her on the GAD blogs I follow. Is there a particular title I should keep an eye out for? I remmber Rue Morgue Press having a couple in their stable, so they might still be available somewhere...

    1. Try Johnny Under Ground or Many Deadly Returns/Who Saw Her Die? perhaps.

    2. I've found a copy of Many Deadly Returns, shall attempt to get to it sooner rather than later -- thanks for the tip.