Sunday, November 6, 2016

Black Widower

Mavis Ironmonger, wife of Sir Edward Ironmonger, the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from the recently emancipated Caribbean island of Tampica, is making quite a name for herself amongst the Washing diplomatic corps. Not necessarily a nice name, mind you. She's rumored to be overly-friendly with male Senators and diplomats...and even, gasp, married embassy staff. It's also said that she goes back to her music hall roots when she had a few more drinks than she ought to. And when the Ironmongers host their first diplomatic reception at their brand-new home/embassy, she manages to insult the Israeli ambassador and must be hustled off to her room before she can make an even bigger spectacle of herself. Despite having promised to behave herself and drink only straight tomato juice, she seems to have gotten herself thoroughly sloshed--to the point of passing out on her bed when she's taken upstairs.

That's when Mavis Ironmonger becomes front page news. Sir Edward sends his right-hand man Michael Holder-Watts to bring his wife back downstairs to say farewell to their guests, but Mavis has already made her final farewell...she's dead. With a gunshot in her head and Sir Edward's gun lying close at hand, it gives the initial appearance of suicide. Not the most savory of deaths for a diplomat's wife, but certainly better than the alternative...murder. And murder is just what it is. The Ironmongers' physician, flown in from Tampica, proves that Mavis was drugged (giving her the appearance of intoxication) and would have been out cold when the shot was fired. In an effort to keep things as quiet as possible, Sir Edward refuses to allow American officials to investigate a murder on what is Tampican soil and seeks help from Scotland Yard. He asks specifically for Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett, a modest, self-effacing man whose gentlemanly demeanor masks a shrewd mind. His investigation takes him to Tampica and after interviews and a collection of clues he meets with Miss Pontefract-Deacon, known as the Queen of Tampica and a woman who knows everything there is to know about Tampica and its inhabitants. Between the two of them, they spot a pattern in the evidence and Tibbett will have to rush back to Washington to prevent a final murder.

Black Widower (1975) is not the best example of Patricia Moyes's detective fiction. The plot is serviceable and Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are their usual congenial selves, but transplanting them to Washington and the Caribbean doesn't work as well as their British adventures or even those that take place in Switzerland. And this time around the reader is hit over the head (repeatedly) with the primary clue. I didn't stop to count how many times it's mentioned, but I would think even the dullest of readers would pick up on the fact that was a most important item indeed. You might miss the connection with the suspect (although I kind of doubt that too). 

There is a bit of interesting commentary built into the story on race relations. Modern readers will wince at the attitudes towards the islanders (or if they don't, they should), but having lived through the 70s, I definitely recognize the attitudes. It was very reassuring to see Emmy Tibbitt's reactions to the behavior, though. 

Emmy felt her stomach turning over, and instinctively drew away from Pauline. Is it possible, she thought, that the woman really imagines that Francis can only hear her when she's actually talking to him? Is it possible that she is so insensitive as not to realize what she's saying? Doesn't she think he's human? Oh God, let's get away from them....

A book that's definitely of its time and perhaps it doesn't wear so well because of it. It would fare better if the plot were a little stronger and the clues not so obvious. Also, there is a political and financial theme running throughout the story that could have had more made of it, but I don't think Moyes was comfortable enough with the subject to use it more strongly. A decent read at ★★ and 3/4 verging on a full three.

11/9/16: For a different take on this one, please see Kate's review at Cross Examining Crime. And, contrary to my remarks about the clue and readers above, I can assure you she's one smart cookie. It just proves that two people can read the same book with very different results.

This counts for the "Bottle/Glass" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. It is also my first entry in the 1975edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1975 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

1 comment:

fredamans said...

I think I'd pass on this one.