Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There are plenty of fictional detectives who have to face personal demons, or are haunted by their pasts. So it can be very refreshing to read about a sleuth who actually has a stable marriage and a functional outlook on life. Such is Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett, whom we first meet in Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. Let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today to take a look at a police detective who actually isn’t dysfunctional.
Tibbett and his wife Emmy take a skiing trip to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which specialises in holidays for skiers. Although the Tibbetts travel as a couple rather than in a party, they begin to get to know their fellow travellers almost right from the beginning of the novel. There’s a young English group of friends; an Italian-born baroness, her children, and their governess; a German family; a British Colonel and his wife who are ‘regulars’ at the hotel; and an Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser, also a ‘regular.’
Tibbett and his wife notice undercurrents of tension right from the start of the trip. However, nothing really untoward happens until early one evening. Several of the hotel guests have just finished tea at a village café and gone up the ski lift to the hotel. That’s when the alarm is raised that Fritz Hauser has been shot. His body has been found on one of the downward-facing ski lift chairs and it seems that he was shot while riding the lift to the village. Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive and begin to investigate. When Spezzi discovers that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, he works with Tibbett, at first grudgingly and then increasingly willingly.
As the detectives begin their search for the truth, they discover that there are several possible suspects among the hotel guests. Hauser was involved in smuggling, blackmail and other shady businesses and nearly everyone at the hotel has a reason to be glad he is dead. So part of the task facing the sleuths is unwrapping the layers of everyone’s history to find out what motives there may be. Another task is finding out exactly how the murder was accomplished. Whoever shot Hauser had to know when he would be on the ski lift, had to be in the right physical position to commit the crime, and had to have access to the weapon.
Tibbett thinks he has found the solution to the crime when there’s another death that seems to call his theory into question. But once he puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he and Spezzi are able to find out who the murderer is and what the motive is. There’s an argument that, as the saying goes, Hauser brought his fate on himself.
This novel has a lot of elements of the classic detective novel. There’s the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ murder, the group of disparate people all together in a remote place, and the detective whose ‘nose,’ as Tibbett calls it, helps lead him to the truth. There’s also the series of clues: remarks that later have a lot of meaning; small incidents, and so on. That said though, this novel features more character development than is sometimes found in classic detective stories. As the novel unfolds, we gradually learn more and more about each character. We learn why each is really at the Bella Vista and how the characters’ histories intersect with Hauser’s. Readers who like to know something about the characters in their novels will be pleased.
Another important element in this novel is the detective Henry Tibbett and his relationship with his wife Emmy. Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, so he’s no amateur, and it shows. He behaves professionally, gathers evidence, makes sense of clues and conducts interviews. He also has a dose of compassion. As he gets to know the other characters, Tibbett feels for them. Even when he finds out who is behind the murders, that doesn’t lessen his feeling of sadness that things have worked out as they have. For her part, Emmy isn’t a cop, but Tibbett depends quite a lot on her intuition, intelligence and quick thinking. They make a very good team and their mutual respect is obvious. Readers who are tired of dysfunctional, demon-fighting drinkers as protagonists will be pleased with the Tibbetts. Neither is perfect, but they do make an effective pair.
It’s also worth noting that instead of the stereotypical ‘local cop doesn’t want interference from outside the patch’ scenario, Capitano Spezzi ends up working well with Tibbett. He and Tibbett disagree on some things, and in fact at one point, Spezzi feels he has no choice but to make an arrest in the case – an arrest Tibbett doesn’t want. But overall, each respects the other and they co-operate.
Another very important element in this novel is the setting. Most of the action takes place in a small Italian skiing town near the Austrian border. The town is located in a region which was part of Austria until it became incorporated into Italy. So there’s an interesting mix of history, cultures and some underlying tension as Moyes gives a bit of the history of the area. There is also of course, the breathtaking scenery:
‘Soon Chiusa was just a huddle of pink and ochre houses far below. Valleys opened out gloriously, houses lost their Italianate look and became steadily more and more Alpine, with wooden balconies and eyebrows of snow on their steep, overhanging eaves. Up and up the engine puffed and snorted, nearer and nearer to the snowfields and the pink peaks….
The village was set at the head of a long valley – a valley of which the floor itself was over 5,000 feet above sea-level. All round, the mountains stood in a semi-circle, at once protective and menacing. The village seemed very small and very brave, up there in the white heights.’
Skiing and the ski culture play important roles in the novel, too. Most of the guests are there to ski, so there are daily ski trips, lessons and so on. Oh, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that there’s a great ski-chase scene.
The mystery itself is believable once we know what and who is behind the events in the story. And as each person’s secret comes out (because just about everyone in the hotel has one), the behaviour of the characters makes sense. Henry and Emmy Tibbett and Capitano Spezzi solve the crime in a credible way too, and that gives the story just a hint of the police procedural. The story is a very sad one in a lot of ways, but there are flashes that things will work out for most of the characters.
Dead Men Don’t Ski is a classic-style whodunit/howdunit with a more modern emphasis on characters. It features a refreshingly normal (if I can put it that way) sleuth who actually has a good relationship with his wife/‘partner detective.’ The setting is unique and Moyes places the reader distinctly there. But what’s your view? Have you read Dead Men Don’t Ski? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 23 September/Tuesday 24 September – Needle in a Haystack – Ernesto Mallo
Monday 30 September/Tuesday 1 October – Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder – Wendy James
Monday 7 October/Tuesday 8 October – The Marx Sisters – Barry Maitland