Tuesday, December 29, 2020

More from 1970: Patricia Moyes' Who Saw Her Die?/Many Deadly Returns

the British first edition 
of the novel
Patricia Moyes' Who Saw Her Die? (aka Many Deadly Returns in the US) may have followed the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it is very much of the period.  Aside from occasional mentions of mini-skirts and some examples of Seventies slang ("he's shacked up with some little broad somewhere"), the novel almost could have been written during the between-the-wars period.  Even Emmy Tibbett, the wife of Scotland Yard's Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett (newly promoted in this book) who always seems to get involved with her husband's cases to some degree, has precedents in Golden Age detective fiction. There is also a woman doctor, Sarah Massingham, subjected to sexist remarks, but women locums are not completely unknown in Golden Age detective fiction.  

The murder takes place at a house party given by Crystal Codworthy, Lady Balaclava, at her country estate, which she keeps up like a time capsule in decaying Thirties modern style.  (Her late husband, nouveau riche Charlie Codworthy, made a fortune in the toilet business.)

The murder method--Lady Balaclava appears to have been poisoned at her birthday party but no poison is detected in her system--is suitably mysterious.  The suspects--her three daughters, Violet, Primrose and Daffodil and their husbands, and her companion-help Dorothy Underwood-Threep--are sufficiently characterized, all of them distinguishable personalities in their own right.  

All in all Who Saw Her Die? is a model classic style detective novel, recalling certain works by Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and John Street, all of whom were adept fictional poisoners.  (The book resembles Christie in another way as well.)  To me this is a much stronger example of classic crime fiction than the Catherine Aird novel I reviewed in my last blog post. 

It may be as much as 40,000 words longer than the Aird, but to me it reads more smoothly and cogently.  There may be a bit too much travelogue for my taste during the side investigative trips to France, Switzerland and the Netherlands by the Tibbetts, but not nearly as much as you get from Freeman Wills Crofts.  Indeed, it's a most tidily told tale, complete with an afterword by the author explaining how she came upon the murder method.  Highly recommended to lovers of Golden Age mystery.  

American mystery critic Anthony Boucher, a great booster of Moyes since her debut in '59, would have loved this one had he lived to read it, I'm sure.  The only thing left unexplained, for me, is the British title.  I don't really see the urgency of the titular question.  I prefer the more prosaic but obviously pertinent Many Deadly Returns, since it's believed in the novel that Lady Balaclava was poisoned by one of her birthday presents from her in-laws: a marzipan cake, champagne and a bouquet of roses.  How did she die? would seem to be the more pertinent question in this novel.


  1. At the risk of spoilering the story, which I read years ago, I think the reason for the British story is explained in the afterword, except maybe it was kept out of the US afterword as it may not have made sense. I always remember thinking it was fairly clever

    1. Well, I suppose it's not much of a spoiler but it should be WHO saw her die, in acknowledgment to the World Health Organisation who helped her with the background research to the book

    2. Oh, wow, I totally missed that! But then I'm usually bad at dying messages and such.

  2. It’s the idiotic names that put me off this writer. Okay it’s a little homage to Christianna Brand I guess but it makes the books read as if they were written by a four year old. And it certainly dates them

    1. Well, in this case the daughters were all named for flowers and their father's insistence so....

      And wasn't Crystal the name of Linda Evans' character in Dynasty?

      I've read four Patricia Moyes mysteries and three of them have been excellent. Only the fourth, her last one written when she was losing steam, was a dud.

    2. I've only seen Moyes' books in CA's Friends of the Library book stores; only in complete (or very nearly) sets, collected by the same person, presumably passed. On a couple of occasions I've bought the sets; other times I've come back to do so, but they are invariably gone. Those who know, know.

      Moyes was Peter Ustinov's personal assistant. She had a great stroke of luck with a translation and was able to devote the rest of her life to writing.

      She had a remarkable gift for milieu and setting, especially for the worlds of Publishing, Fashion, Filmmaking, and of course Sailing. Her husband's diplomatic career helped to enrich a few of her books.

      She had such a hot steak, it was rather sad to see her decline, particularly when one could tell how the Caribbean, her retirement home and preferred setting for several of her last books, was so dear to her.

      Like all of us, she was a product of her times, and, even while trying to be progressive couldn't help but flash her innate prejudices.

      In all, though, she seems to me to have been one of the most overlooked mystery writers of quality: and of her first ten books or so, she's tough to surpass.

    3. Yes, I agree she started to slide in those Caribbean books from the eighties and on. I think A Six Letter Word for Death was the last of hers I really liked. But the two earlier ones I reviewed here were both winners.

  3. I read this one ages ago, I think, so my memories are suitably foggy. I feel like she is one of the many writers I need to return to, (just need to perfect my ability to read whilst sleeping first!). Found some good bargains last week so I have a copy of Virginia Rath's A Shroud for Rowena and Well Dressed for Murder by Laverne Rice winging their way to me.

    1. I do hope you like those two since I got them back in print with Chad Arment.

      As I said above, Moyes has mostly been very solid for me.