It has been a while since I have read anything by Patricia Moyes, but Rich’s Crimes of the Century Challenge at his blog Past Offences this month, has given me an opportunity to return to her work. The story begins with the Tampican Embassy holding a reception in Georgetown to open the embassy which has after Tampica’s (a fictional Caribbean island) recently gained independence as a country. The biggest concern for those running the event is the ambassador’s wife, Lady Mavis Ironmonger, whose has a tendency to do embarrassing and inappropriate things during social events, a fear which is unfortunately realised during the reception. Ever swift to act, the embassy’s counsellor, Michael Holder-Watts and his wife deal with the situation quickly, removing Mavis from the party and locking her in her bedroom. Yet when they go to her room once the party is ending, they find her dead, shot in the right temple at close range. People are quick to assume suicide, but the post mortem soon disabuses people of this idea, hinting at foul play instead. Eager to keep the Americans out of the situation the ambassador, Eddie and Tampica’s prime minister plan to officially have a newly made Tampica Inspector lead the case and unofficially have Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard in the investigation.
There are a number of motives for killing Mavis. Her inappropriate behaviour made her unpopular with the other embassy inhabitants. For instance she was well-known for her dalliances with other men, one of whom was Michael. Whilst there is more than one loyal embassy worker who is angry at the damage Mavis did to the Eddie’s reputation with her behaviour, causing him to lose out on becoming Tampica’s president. Added into the mix is a group of protestors and a number of political figures who are interested in the naval base negotiations between America and Tampica. A further death seems to resolve the case easily but Tibbett is not entirely convinced, making further discrete investigations. Yet when Tibbett finally arrives at the truth it remains to be seen whether he can catch the killer and provide another death.
On the whole this is a solid mystery with a clever key clue which I failed to spot and the murder method itself has some interesting features. The way of announcing the first death was also done in an effective way. In comparison to Ngaio Marsh’s Black As He’s Painted (1974), Moyes handles the issue of race better and although including racist viewpoints, they are clearly not endorsed. For example when Michael’s wife says ‘“Sir Edward may be only a Tampican, but at least he’s a gentleman!”’ Moyes follows this with the line ‘And, having packed the maximum possible snobbery, bigotry and lack of tact into one short sentence… [she left].’ Michael’s wife is not the only white character to come under censure in the book. However, there are some less clear passages in the book, where Moyes’ handling of race is more ambiguous, such as with the means of apprehending the killer. Moreover, I am still not entirely sure why Moyes went with the title, Black Widower, as yes it may be referring to Eddie, but in that case it seems to be stating the obvious. Whilst if it is meant in a more thematic and more figurative way, it is hard to relate such interpretations to the actual plot and its solution. Nevertheless Moyes has a strong writing style which maintains a good pace and she makes Tibbett’s investigation engaging to follow. Her characterisation is also effective, with her characters being morally complex and hard to define as either “good” or “bad”. Furthermore, the novel ends with an effectively relevant and eerie atmosphere which reveals the triumphant and menacing power of politics combining with business and commerce.
Bev at My Reader’s Block: Black Widower