Tag Archives: 20th century crime fiction

Who Saw Her Die? : Patricia Moyes

It’s Crystal Balaclava’s seventieth birthday, and as usual her three daughters Primrose, Violet and Daffodil travel from various locations to join their mother at the family estate at Plumley Green, Surrey. This year is different. This year Crystal requests police protection and pulls strings to achieve her desire. She specifically requests that Detective Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy be present for the birthday celebration. She’s been tipped off by her Ouija board that she’s in danger and since Crystal always listens to her Ouija board, Tibbett and his wife Emmy find themselves staying at Foxes Trot.

Who Saw her die

The Tibbetts are not the usual sort of guests for Crystal. Crystal may be 70 but she’s stuck in her youth as a flapper, and so she tends to surround herself with people who are amusing and giddy. Henry and Emmy are rather pedestrian compared to the usual crowd. Crystal, who has a hard bitchy edge, is well drawn.

It took Henry a moment to register that fact that she was still a beautiful woman, because the overwhelming first impression was so bizarre. The Henna-dyed bobbed hair, the bandeau, the short, unwaisted dress of drooping yellow crepe, the bright red cupid’s bow painted on wrinkled lips, the pearly white-stocking, the foot-long jade cigarette-holder–they all added up not to a parody of the fashion of forty years ago, but to the thing itself.

Crystal is the sort of person who dominates the room, and dislikes female competition, so when she meets Henry and Emmy, she immediately launches some nasty barbs at Emmy. It’s obvious that Emmy is there for window dressing, so poor Emmy suffers from Crystal’s sharp edges.

Crystal fears that death will come in the form of poison, and she expects Henry to act, more or less, as a food taster. One daughter always brings a birthday cake, another a case of champagne, and another roses. In spite of Henry’s best efforts to protect Crystal she dies from poison.

It’s too bad Crystal makes an early exit as she’s a strong character (bet Emmy wasn’t really that upset). In fact the person who seems the most devastated by the murder is Crystal’s life long companion (since becoming a widow) Dolly,  whose “mannish face was coated in a thick layer of pancake make-up, in a grotesque parody of femininity.” (ouch!) Dolly manages the entire household and while Crystal considered Dolly a bit dense, Dolly, in reality,  is an incredible person. There are a limited number of suspects. The estate is tied up until Crystal’s death at which time it will pass to her daughters–each have their own reasons for needing money.

While the characters of Henry and Emmy were pleasant enough, the tale itself rather goes through the motions. With Crystal lying dead, still warm, Henry and the local doc share a chuckle over the body without seeming to realise the innate distastefulness of their actions. The result is a crime book that’s more an exercise for readers who prefer their crime light but puzzling enough they can try to discover the solution as they read.

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Filed under Fiction, Moyes Patricia

Murder Underground: Mavis Doriel Hay (1934)

“Whatever you may feel about your relations, you don’t like to hear of them strangled with a dog leash”

In Mavis Doriel Hay’s novel Murder Underground, the story focuses on a handful of people who knew the elderly victim, Miss Pongleton. Most of those people were her fellow residents at The Frampton, a London boarding house. Miss Pongleton, or’Pongle’ was a difficult woman. She changed her will constantly, vacillating between her nephew Basil, and her niece Beryl Sanders. Beryl, who’s engaged to Gerry Plasher, a young stockbroker, has money of her own, but Basil, an unsuccessful author, falls into one scrape after another and desperately needs the money.

On the morning of Miss Pongleton’s death, she was on her way, via the underground to an appointment with a “cheap” dentist, Mr. Crampit, but before she could arrive at her destination, she was strangled, from behind, by a dog leash. The leash belongs to Miss Pongleton’s elderly asthmatic terrier, Tuppy, as it turns out, so that indicates that the murderer was either a resident of The Frampton or someone who had access to the victim’s belongings. The murder is complicated by the fact that Miss Pongleton was in possession of a stolen brooch that she may or may not have intended to turn into the police. The police assume that the man who stole the brooch murdered Miss Pongleton.

Further complications can be found in the fact that Basil, Gerry, and Bob, the man who stole the brooch, all encountered Miss Pongleton on the steps to the underground–all around the time she as murdered. Did she encounter a fourth acquaintance?

murder-undergound

The police are far in the background in this tale. Some of that can be explained by the fact that they think the murderer is Bob. Most of the story (and the author’s focus) is concerned with the residents of the boarding house and the antics of Basil. Basil has a lot to hide and his antics, which are aimed at making him look innocent, have the opposite result. He really is an idiot, and although he’s portrayed as an amiable fool, looking at his exploits in perspective, he’s really not nice.

Tuppy is distraught without his mistress, and although Pongle is portrayed unpleasantly here, she loved her dog. Basil who calls the dog alternately a poodle and a pug, can’t even get Tuppy’s breed straight. Once it is known that a portion of Miss Pongleton’s money is directed towards the care of her dog, suddenly more people become interested in Tuppy’s welfare. Oh the depravity of human nature. …

The residents of the boarding house are a motley bunch thrown together by circumstance, and they include a couple of young women, the “pompous” Mr. Slocomb, a female crime novelist (who becomes our amateur sleuth) and a retiree, Mr Bland who keeps scrapbooks:

Many of them were yellow with age and most of them referred to crimes. Kindly and tolerant in his relationship with his fellow men, Mr. Blend would gloat over the details of crimes with a chill, inhuman joy. The truth was that he did not regard them as part of life but merely as a form of art, just as many humane people wallow deliciously in the gruesome “murder mysteries” of fiction. 

In contrast to the viciousness of the crime, a gentle thread of humour runs throughout the tale. Some of that comes from the residents or “inmates” of the boarding house, the nosiness of landladies, the clash of the tabloid press as they lay siege to the fragile gentility of the characters, but most of it comes from Basil’s pathologically, idiotic missteps:

Well, I went quietly, as the saying is–as quietly as their car would take me, but it was one of those noisy popping brutes. There they had what they call an identification parade, I think–I’m getting awfully good at all the crime lingo. I was lined up with a lot of others–and, by Jove, it gives you a pretty poor opinion of yourself to see the specimens that the police pick out as being roughly the same type as yourself!

I guessed the identity of the murderer almost immediately, but enjoyed the gentle humour here nonetheless. I wondered if the author intended us to see Miss Pongleton as negatively as the other characters saw her, and conversely whether we were supposed to see Basil as quite the way his family saw him. Perhaps the flaws of these characters are supposed to be seen as relative to the viciousness of the murderer. Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three crime novels in her lifetime: Murder Underground (1934), Death on the Cherwell (1935), and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936).

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hay Mavis Doriel