(Editor’s note: This marks the 91st installment of The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Previous recommendations can be found here.)
Flying in the face of Rap Sheet tradition, my first pick for a forgotten treasure is not a noir novel, nor even a hard-boiled one. It is a classic, country-house cozy built around a collection of English eccentrics (is that redundant?), with a puzzle at its core.
By the mid-1970s fans of the traditional British cozy could be forgiven for being more than a little apprehensive: the genre was showing signs of becoming an endangered species. Not to worry, however. A second generation of British crime writers rooted firmly in the cozy tradition were emerging. One of the best of those was Patricia Moyes, who made a grand entrance (acknowledged approvingly by no less than Anthony Boucher) with a delightful debut novel titled Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959). Although it is a fine story in its own right, I want to focus here on her 1967 novel, Murder Fantastical.
A relative newcomer to the village of Cregwell, turf accountant (I love that British name for a bookie) Raymond Mason has driven over to Cregwell Grange to speak with George Manciple, the rather doddering owner of that family estate. Mason wants to buy Manciple’s home, his admission ticket, as he sees it, to the life of a country squire.
Relations between the two have not always been cordial. Rebuffed in earlier efforts to purchase the property, Mason has harassed Manciple with numerous official complaints, including the fact that Manciple has a shooting range on the estate, which Mason argues is unsafe. As if to prove that point, as Mason is leaving the grounds he is shot and killed while Manciple is target-shooting nearby.
In the manner of English country-house crimes, the local chief constable asks for help from Scotland Yard to solve this mysterious slaying. Enter the amiable and deceptively ordinary Henry Tibbitt, Chief Inspector (later Chief Superintendent), coming to Cregwell accompanied, not entirely incongruously, by his wife, Emily, who visits a friend in a nearby village.
As Tibbet arrives at Cregwell Grange he is somewhat nonplussed to find an elderly man sitting in a tree, pointing a pistol at him and hollering “Bang, bang!” It proves to be the lord of the manor (and presumed killer of the late Mr. Mason), attempting to re-create the circumstances of Mason’s death. While this might seem to the casual reader to be a bit peculiar, even by English standards, it proves to be merely a harbinger of things to come. Before long Henry will meet Manciple’s long-suffering wife, Violet, his brother Edwin, the retired Bishop of Bugolaland, and Manciple’s elderly aunt Dora. All have their own idiosyncrasies. Edwin has a passion for working crossword puzzles, coupled with random reminiscences of his time in the African outback; Aunt Dora is going deaf, causing no little confusion in her conversational exchanges; and Violet spends much of her time trying to hold this loose-knit collection of lovable oddballs together.
Moreover, odd habits seem to run in the family. George’s father (who, being a former schoolmaster, is referred to by the family simply as the Head), died in a head-on collision with another driver. He apparently believed that as a taxpayer he had a right to drive down the middle of the road. Unfortunately, the same belief was shared by the oncoming driver.
Things get murky when the Marxist son of bookmaker Mason arrives, claiming that his father was murdered. Then there’s young Julian Manning-Richards, fiancé to Violet’s daughter, Maud. It seems the late Raymond Mason fancied himself a contender for that honor, and the two were at odds.
And so it goes. Before this story is over Moyes will paint a quirky, endearing picture of English country life, at least as it existed in some circles several decades ago. And if she occasionally goes a bit over the top, well, it’s deliberate, and all in the service of a good cause. Murder Fantastical is an engaging tale about a quintessentially English family, with a traditional puzzle at its heart. It will not appeal to readers seeking realism, or gore, or conversational exchanges between what we understand today as sane human beings. But it is, for all that, an affectionate and entertaining tale, something of a comedy of manners, and it compares well with many cozies that find their way into print today.
Born Patricia Pakenham-Walsh in Dublin in 1923, Moyes worked for eight years with Peter Ustinov’s film company, and wrote the screenplay for that 1960 movie classic, School for Scoundrels (which featured Terry Thomas, Ian Charmichael, and Alistair Sim). She also translated Jean Anouilth’s play, Leocadia. Nominated for an Edgar Award in 1971, she died in the British Virgin Islands in 2000.
Not quite a household name today, even among mystery buffs, Moyes’ oeuvre is firmly in the tradition of the reigning cozy writers of the preceding decades. And happily, although not currently in print, copies of Murder Fantastical are still readily available.