Tag Archives: country house mystery

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

Thirteen Guests: J Jefferson Farjeon (1936)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a country house murder mystery, and I’d forgotten how much fun they can be. Thirteen Guests from J. Jefferson Farjeon is a delightful read and a perfect example of the sub-genre. I recently read The Z Murders from the same author, and while I liked the book until about the halfway mark, it’s definitely not my favourite from the British Library Crime Classics series. I’m glad I gave Farjeon, who’s largely OOP, a second chance.

The novel is set at Bragley Court, the ancestral estate of Lord Aveling, and the story opens at a railway station in Flensham as the guests begin to arrive. Twelve guests were invited, and the number thirteen is due to the inclusion of a young man, John Foss, who injures his foot at the railway station and is taken to Bragley Court for medical attention.

Thirteen guestsThe guests are a broad assortment of people, and while that could reflect the host’s desire for an interesting weekend, in reality, the invitations are all made with some sort of purpose in mind. The owner of Bragley Court, Lord Aveling, “a Conservative with ambition” wants  to become a marquis or an earl. He’s short of money and plans on arranging a marriage with his daughter, Anne to one of the guests. She isn’t cooperating, which is bad news for Lord Aveling as the match would be politically advantageous. Also resident in Bragley Court are Lady Aveling and her aged, infirm mother, Mrs. Morris. And here’s the guest list:

  • Widow Nadine Leveridge : A beautiful, headstrong woman who was rather hard on her husband while he was alive. He called her: “One of life’s glorious risks.”
  • Harold Taverley–a quiet man, a cricketer, who follows Anne around like a puppy.
  • Author Edyth-Fermoy-Jones: she’d rather talk about the crimes that take place in her own books than the murders at Bragley Court
  • Leicester Pratt: a painter whose works have declined in quality as he became more successful. He’s all “the rage” at the moment and is there to paint a portrait of Anne. As another guest points out, “He finds your weakness and paints around it.”
  • Mr Rowe, the Sausage King & his wife–very much out-of-place in Bragley Court, but Mr Rowe seems oblivious to this
  • Ruth Rowe, daughter of the Sausage King
  • Sir James Earnshaw: Liberal, “wondering whether to turn Right or Left.”
  • Zena Wilding: aging actress
  • Lionel Bultin: gossip columnist, a “ruthless reader of character.” “This weekend was a sort of bribe. The tobacco and beads for the naughty indian with the scalping knife.”
  • Mr and Mrs Chater–Bultin wittily quips that a letter ‘e’  “slipped between the second and third letters of their names” would describe the Chaters more accurately
  • John Foss: a young man injured at the railway station

So while all these guests have prior relationships and current agendas, John Foss is a newcomer. As Anne notes “it’s rather pleasant having you here–you’re so absolutely nothing-to-do-with-anything.” With his injured foot, he’s parked on a couch in the ante-room and mostly forgotten. Due to his location in the house he’s privy to incidents that others are unaware of.

Due to the rising body count, it’s fairly easy to imagine being one of the guests and wanting to leave and yet being forbidden to do so by Inspector-Inspector Kendall. He’s called to the case by pure circumstance, and he’s an interesting character who’s thorough when it comes to crime detection:  “If I’d been born with a kink in my brain,” he said, “I’d have been one of the big criminals, but fortunately for law and order my brain is not pathological, so I catch ’em instead.” The addition to the guests of John Foss is interesting because as a newcomer, he picks up vibes and tension that others seem unaware of. When first entering the house, he notes that “something’s wrong.”

But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious loungehall that glowed in the late afternoon sunshine and flickered in the light of an enormous log-fire. Something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets, and none of the people John had so far met reflected complete mental ease.

The framework of the novel is good–although I was a little disappointed in the deaths (you’ll have to read the book to know what I mean). Apart from the murders, which with a diminishing number of suspects allows the reader an opportunity to solve the crimes, there is also witty repartee between some of the guests. Humour is introduced through the character of author Edyth-Fermoy-Jones, a truly insufferable woman, constantly bragging about her own books while knocking others, including: “of course that obscene thing, All Quiet on the Western Front.” She also claims that John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps was copied from the title of one of her books–Forty-Nine Stairs. A stag hunt takes place, and is thankfully not described, but the event reminds the reader that a casual killing takes place, and it’s not just the stag who dies. The author doesn’t pay equal attention to all of the guests, so unfortunately it’s easy to guess who should be scrutinized. All these murders take place against the highly mannered behaviour of the guests and creates a good sense of contrast–all that polite, social considerate under which lurks the basest of human nature, and that’s exactly how it should be with a country house murder mystery.

Review copy

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Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction