A Six Letter Word for Death by Patricia Moyes


published 1983





[Excerpts from throughout book]

Barbara had blonde, fashionably frizzy hair, and wore a costume that seemed to have been influenced by both India and the Cossacks, and certainly came from a way-out London boutique—the sort of outfit that only the young and skeletal can get away with.





Henry noticed, as she led the way into the sitting room, that she was wearing a sort of gypsy skirt in brilliant colors and a shapeless knitted blouse. Barbara Oppenshaw was certainly not in mourning.




comments  There is something very soothing about reading a Patricia Moyes book: ideal for a lockdown situation. I had to keep checking the date on this one: yes it was 1983, but it might as well have been 1963 or 1973. There were many very promising points, and it is always pleasant to spend time with policeman Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy  - the real ongoing mystery being why she hasn’t murdered him yet, though the unironic Moyes take seems to be that they are a devoted and happy couple.

Henry starts getting crossword clues through the post, and the solutions (obtained with the help of a character from an earlier book, Murder Fantastical) hint at crimes in the past. Henry works out there must be a connection with a social weekend he is about to attend, where a number of disparate people are collected. And yes, it turns out each of the other guests has a connection with a past ‘situation’ which may have been a crime. Is it a prank? Is the real crime hidden in some others? What is going on?

Well this is splendid! A cross between Agatha Christie’s  Mrs McGinty’s Dead and her And Then There Were None.

Even better – after some chitchat about all this, one of the characters says to Henry ‘I must talk to you at 5pm’ and then says ‘I’m just going off to collect something important from my parents’ house’. He might as well add ‘I will be on horseback on a lonely clifftop path, I obviously have something major on my mind, and will have some evidence in my pocket on the way home. I have let you all know this. What can possibly go wrong?’ I will leave you to guess…

I had a faint feeling of disappointment as Moyes did not make the best of this entrancing plot. It all got rather convoluted, and one major plotline took place completely off-stage. And was described in by-then tiresome detail when it was finally discussed after the murderer had been identified. Again - half way through, Henry makes an enormous assumption and asks a key question: I felt this was completely unclued and came out of nowhere, but couldn’t quite be bothered to go back and check, but I would like it to have been seeded. And then again, near the end a character reveals their feelings and says ‘You will have guessed…’ – but I felt there was no reason to guess.

But it kept me going, even though it tailed off in the second half, and I very much liked the setting on the Isle of Wight, a place known to me somewhat.

There are always strange details in Moyes books – in this one we learn that it is not OK to have a cup of tea at 2.30 in the afternoon, it is ‘less than suitable’ (no, no idea). Then later at a beach picnic someone is roundly mocked (with authorial approval) for wanting a soft drink – there is only alcohol on offer, unless she is willing to ‘wait for the ice to melt and drink the water’. Both these items puzzled me…

And there was the traditional inquest in the small country town. It is my proud boast that as a young journalist I went to cover my first inquest, and filed my story to be looked over by someone more senior. ‘But this is perfect’ he said, ‘don’t need to change a word. I normally expect to explain a lot about the format of the inquest and the subsequent story, the legal details. How come you know so much about inquests?’ and of course the answer was that I had read about so many of them in murder stories that I had the lingo off pat, and knew exactly what happened.

Moyes doesn’t have very elaborate clothes descriptions here, which is rather a disappointment as she once worked at Vogue – my favourite of her books is Murder a la Mode, about fashion mags and Paris collections, and I am particularly proud of the photograph I found to illustrate that book, do take a look. But Moyes has her eye in and you can often imagine her outfits, which is what I have done here. From a striped cotton dress with a cashmere cardigan, to Emmy’s evening outfit of a long black skirt with a pink chiffon blouse, the clothes feel right. Even then they didn’t actually feel very 80s, but I have given young Barbara some truly proper outfits of the early 80s from fashion magazines, and picked some others from sewing patterns of the era.


The crossword expert mentioned above, incidentally, is the retired Bishop of Bugolaland. And:

‘The Bishop, a well-known eccentric, was often to be seen jogging along the road, dressed in sneakers, running shorts, and a clerical collar. “A man should take sufficient exercise, wear clothing suitable to the activity, but never lose sight of his vocation,” as the Bishop frequently explained to surprised passersby.’

So sad that I have no picture for that.


There are several of Moyes’ books on the blog, and in this post I take a look at Henry and Emmy as a sleuthing couple.



Comments

  1. "the sort of outfit that only the young and skeletal can get away with" - love that! My own definition of who can actually wear what's sold in the shops these days is "20-year-old Olympian swimmers", i.e. very tall and very thin and very muscular young women with broad shoulders and no bust, no waist, no hips. I am the exact opposite of this - not very tall, not very thin, not very muscular, with not very impressive shoulders, but hey - I do have bust, waist and hips, all of which are in the way when shopping for clothes. I would KILL to have the Olympian swimmer figure and would rush to the shops to buy skinny jeans and slouchy sweaters and billowy skirts and dresses... But maybe I can feel less envious if I think of it as "young and skeletal".

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    1. It took me till I was well over 40 to decide/realize what actually suited me. I wanted to be a hippyish boho, slightly androgynous - and I'm nothing like. But now I have decided my look is Lady Pirate Detective, and that's what I wear. And there was the sudden revelation that my waist was by no means tiny, but that its proportion to the rest of me was good. My mother used to tell me that and I never listened to her...

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  2. Mmm . . . you haven't quite sold me on this one, Moira. No bad thing, given the state of my TBR pile.

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    1. It's not honestly her best, definite falling off in the second half, but I did enjoy it. I loved the idea of the crosswords, though that had limited impact on the plot.

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  3. Susanna Tayler8 May 2020 at 15:25

    I like the sound of the Isle of Wight setting. 1983 was about the time I first went on holiday there, though I'd probably have been wearing something from Clothkits and drinking homemade lemonade from a plastic cup on a beach picnic. Ice sounds rather sophisticated for a picnic - how did they keep it from melting? A thermos?

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    1. Rich family in posh house - from memory the servants brought all the picnic.
      Clothkits, oh what memories that conjures up. And generally mags used to have adverts for clothes 'cut out and ready to sew' - you don't see that any more.

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  4. I have read all of the series by Moyes, and don't remember this one at all. Makes it a good one to reread sometime. The two I have reread in the last few years turned out to be good reads.

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    1. I know, I have read many of them, some of them twice, they don't really stick in the mind, but that's fine, good for re-reading. This one features a character from a previous, and I checked it out, and I KNOW I have read it but I could remember almost nothing about it.

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  5. This is a good series, Moira, in my opinion. I like the Tibbets characters, and usually she does a fine job of laying out the mystery. Interested that it felt like a novel from the '60s or '70s. I generally like my mysteries to have a good sense of time and place. Still, I do like the series (Don't know why I've not read this one...)

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    1. Read my exchange with Tracy above, Margot - maybe you have! But no, you have the best memory for books of anyone I know, you wouldn't have forgotten. It's definitely a series to cherish anyway, and for me they are always real comfort reading.

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    1. Ha - I thought you might know some secret shibboleth or etiquette point! I keep thinking about the mocking of the woman who wanted a soft drink. The implication is that she is being affected or pretentious asking for one, she should just drink alcohol like everyone else. It is quite jarring. (I mean if it was young students on a racy outing it would be just about believable, but it isn't.)

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  7. The Tibbets as a sleuthing couple occasionally annoy me but yes, Murder a la Mode was a great read.

    I was very lucky to have spent almost 1/3 of the 80s stationed on the island of Okinawa where I enjoyed the services of a very gifted (and dirt cheap) "sew-sew lady," an elderly local woman who had a little tailoring/repair shop set up in the laundry room in one of the enlisted barracks. I was her only female patron and perhaps as such my custom was a welcome respite from fixing rips in field uniforms and sewing on new stripes - at any rate she made me some lovely clothes (of course I was running 3 miles a day as well as judo, weekly hikes, and weight-lifting. Gone are the days).

    I only had to bring her the fabric and a pattern, although she could also copy just about anything from a magazine photograph. I seem to remember that Jane Tise design.

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    1. Oh how lucky, what a splendid arrangement! We visited friends in Kathmandu, and on our last day my hostess said how much she admired a pair of loose wrap trousers I had worn at lot on the trip: I said how much I loved them, perfect for holidays, comfortable, covered up but loose, flattering, smart easily washed etc. they were quite an unusual and intricate design, and I said how much I would miss them when they finally wore out, they were my favourite trousers ever. And she said 'Oh what a shame we didn't have this conversation before - even two days ago I would have taken you to the clothes-lady, and you could have chosen any fabrics, and she would have copied them in no time, could've made you a couple of pairs.' I think you will understand that I see this as one of the great lost opportunities of my life!

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