This is a bit of a delayed review, as I read this mystery before Christmas. At the time of reading, I was in that difficult mood of wanting to curl up with a good book but struggling to muster sufficient enthusiasm for any one title. Eventually I plumed for this one as the blurb indicated a light-hearted mystery, with comedic elements – which sounded like my kind of read. Shockingly, I discovered today that this was the first Moyes mystery I had read since 2018. I hadn’t realised she had fallen off my radar that much. Fortunately, I have a few more books by her in my TBR pile, so I will hopefully remember to return to her work later in the year.
‘The Manciple family had lived in Cregwell Grange for two generations. The stories of their eccentricities were legion, though the village liked and admired them for all their wild ways. as the doctor’s wife said, ‘The Manciples are a lot of fun if you don’t have to make sense of them.’ Major Manciple was determined to follow his father’s wishes and keep the Grange going as a centre for the family. In order to get the money to do this he sold the Lodge to Raymond Mason, a London bookmaker. Mason, though he tried hard, was cordially disliked by everyone in Cregwell, and their sympathies were strongly behind the Manciples when he was found dying of gunshot wounds in the drive of the Grange. Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate Mason’s death, and soon finds himself struggling with the unenviable task of ‘making sense’ of the Manciples, though he quickly succumbs to their terrific gaiety and charm.’
As I said above it was the blurb which persuaded me to pick this book off the shelf. The title, to be honest, by itself, did not draw me in. It is a rather abstract and vague title, or at least it seemed that way to me. Or to be less polite I could say it was a lazy title, as it doesn’t really sell the book and its’ link to the plot is somewhat minimal.
What sort of titles are you most drawn to when it comes to mystery fiction?
Fortunately, in this case, a bad title does not make this read a write off.
Murder Fantastical begins with a comic phone call between the local Chief Constable and George Manciple, the less than rich country house owner who ends up with a corpse on his drive. Suffice to say George has not come across the topic sentence so in the telephone call that ensues he rather forgets to mention the dead body part for quite some time. Therefore, the Chief Constable erroneously assumes the latter is ringing to whinge about Raymond Mason, and consequently thinks the request for Scotland Yard is overkill. Here is one of my favourite passages from the book, which I think shows Moyes’ talent in depicting social comedy:
“I don’t know what he has done to annoy you this time, but it’s after six on Friday evening, and I suggest that you have a quiet drink and put your feet up while you think it over. After all, Monday will be quite soon enough to –”
“I really don’t understand you at all, John,” Manciple sounded bewildered. “You’re surely not suggesting that I do nothing until Monday?”
“I’m suggesting precisely that.”
“But, my dear John – what am I to do with the body? I can’t keep it here until Monday. Violet wouldn’t like it. Neither would Maud.”
“The body? What are you talking about? Whose body?”
“Mason’s, of course. Haven’t you been listening, John? Of course, if you insist, I’ll keep him until Monday, but it does seem –”
You will not be surprised to learn that one’s sympathy for the Chief Constable grows as he tries to pull a coherent story of events from George and his relations. It is also through the Chief Constable mulling over the known facts about the victim that we learn not only more about him personally, but we also discover the recent ongoing conflict between Raymond and George. There is a degree of social snobbery in this mulling over, but I think this is balanced by the tricky position the Chief Constable ends up in later in the story.
Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett is brought into the case as the Chief Constable much prefers to have an outsider interrogate the Manciple family, who he is friendly with. Henry’s wife joins the trip too, as the local doctor’s wife is an old school friend. This provide Henry with an inside connection for gossip and arguably Emmy provides an on-page presence at the finale when Henry is behind the scenes. However, I don’t think Emmy added much to the story and the plot would have worked as equally well without her.
The opening of the book is more about getting a feel for, or rather your head around, the Manciple household and we do this alongside Henry Tibbett who is trying to do the same thing, although one imagines he feels like he has been chucked in at the deep end with this larger-than-life family. During this period George Manciple goes out of his way to show how he is a prime suspect, yet we also learn about how his refusal to sell his home to the victim, was linked to George’s father’s will. The will aspect crops up further into the plot and I think it adds an interesting dimension to the mystery.
One passage which interested me concerned George Manciple and Henry Tibbett who disagree over whether George’s wife works, if she is singlehandedly running a large house:
“And how many servants used there to be in the old days?”
“Let me see. Cook, of course, and Jimson the butler, and a housemaid and a parlourmaid indoors […] Pity they had to go, but they all got too old to carry on, and frankly, Tibbett, you can’t get the people these days. Not for the money one can afford to pay.”
“So your wife is doing the work of four people.”
George Manciple looked surprised and not a little offended.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “It’s only the house, after all. and Violet doesn’t wait on table, or bring round the jars of hot water to the bedrooms in the mornings, the way the housemaid used to do. Work? Violet has never worked in her life. She is my wife, and I can assure you, sir, that she has never done a hand’s turn for reward – which is what I understand by the word ‘work’. Goodness me, anybody would think she was being exploited, like a Victorian factory girl.”
I found this scene interesting, in that it challenges the stereotypical male point of view that unpaid housework (which in this case involves cooking for nearly a dozen people, washing and cleaning), does not count as “work”. It does not overtly challenge the viewpoint, as Tibbett takes the conversation no further, but I felt there was an implicit criticism of George’s attitude, as it is made to look ridiculous.
The mystery surrounding Mason’s death is solved surprisingly quickly and you could even feel a bit disappointed that the solution is not well concealed. I imagine most readers will pick up the solution at the same time as Tibbett does. However, halfway through the story things begin to change and the plot goes in different directions with further unexpected deaths and peripheral mysteries for Henry Tibbett to solve. In some ways the first death ends up not being the primary or most difficult mystery to solve. Instead, Raymond’s death sets off a chain of other events and crimes. Whilst I enjoyed the new directions of the plot, I felt it could have been tightened up and that the espionage angle was weaker padding material.
Nevertheless, I think Moyes uses the central suspect effectively and her finale, set during the local fete, is deployed well in bringing things to a close. The preparation for the fete is particularly entertaining as the humour is grounded in realism e.g., it taps into experiences readers may have had of preparing for similar events.
SPOILER – DO NOT DECODE THE ROT 13 IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THEBOOK ALREADY
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“Lbh arrqa’g vzntvar,” fnvq Znhq, “gung V’z tbvat gb svg vagb lbhe pbfl yvggyr unccl raqvat.”
“Gura V pna bayl ubcr,” fnvq Urael, “gung lbh svaq lbhe bja.”
Guvf vagrerfgrq zr, nf n pybfvat cnentencu, orpnhfr vg vf dhvgr nagvgurgvpny gb gur jnl ebznapr jnf qrcvpgrq va rneyvre zlfgrevrf fhpu nf gubfr jevggra ol Cngevpvn Jragjbegu. Zblrf’ obbx fubjf dhvgr n fuvsg va ubj gur fgnaqneq gebcr bs lbhgushy ebznapr jnf unaqyrq va qrgrpgvir svpgvba.
Among my favorite mysteries ever! The scene with the retired bishop asking for the loan of butter from a neighbor is priceless. Yes, the ending is not what one expects in a traditional mystery.
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haha yes that scene is brilliant. You can almost imagine it being adapted for TV.
The comments about ‘women’s work’ are interesting. I’ve recently read Johnny Under Ground (my first encounter with Moyes) and in that novel she refers to the difficulty experienced by Emmy, not having any children or a ‘proper’ job and wondering how to fill her time. I know that these were common frustrations experienced by women of that era, but I don’t recall any other mystery writer dealing with them in their books. It’s doubly surprising because I would have expected a writer with these views to make more use of the main female character – as it is, in the book I read, Emmy just plays the traditional helpless & hapless adoring wife, who drifts round getting in the way, not contributing anything useful, and needing to be rescued by the more capable male.
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The juxtaposition you raise of the expressed frustrations of women vs. Moyes not depicting active female leads is an interesting one. I am not sure why she didn’t make Emmy more proactive. Celia Fremlin began writing crime novels around the same time as Moyes – but hers are less traditional in structure. Female experience is very much at the forefront of Fremlin’s work. In The Hours Before Dawn the difficulties of being a mother to multiple young children is integral to the development of plot and the same can be said for the experience of grief in The Long Shadow (a Christmas mystery). One book of hers which gets little attention is Appointment with Yesterday and domestic help, juggling work and marriage and being tossed aside for a younger woman are all very crucial. It is one of her best books I would say.
One of my favorite Patricia Moyes book. I really liked the ending. She really brought in a lot of freshness in familiar tropes and some of her books were pretty ahead of her times like ” Who is Simon Warwick?”
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Interesting to hear that you think Who is Simon Warwick is ahead of its times as that is one that I have in my TBR pile.
It will be interesting to read your review as that’s a book which is difficult to review without spoiling anything.
I read most of Moyes’ books in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Last year I revisited them and realized why I never finished the series: The only two I really liked were the first one, Dead Men Don’t Ski, and Murder Fantastical. As mentioned, the scene with the bishop about the butter is absolutely priceless. I also found the ending of the book beautifully written and moving.
In re-reading Johnny Underground I was struck by how contemptuous the other characters were of Emmy, and Henry has at times been a condescending jerk to her as well. It leaves a bad taste.
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Yes Dead Men Don’t Ski is another good one. I think I was less keen on The Sunken Sailor. I have read Johnny Underground, but pre-blog so my memories are pretty hazy of it. I have a few other Moyes’ on my shelves still to read.
Interesting, The Sunken Sailor is one of those I re-read last year and didn’t like. She can write, but there is something about her characters and the way she portrays them and her attitudes towards them that rubs me the wrong way. At the end of the day, I didn’t much care for Henry (especially after Death on the Agenda, the third book) and if one doesn’t like the detective of a series and want to spend time with him, that series probably just isn’t your cup of tea.
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Yes your point about the need to like or be interested in the central detective is a good one. Probably one of the reasons why I have not really got on with Ngaio Marsh’s books.
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