Sunday, April 30, 2017

Two in the Mountains

Recently, I read two books back-to-back with somewhat similar settings, so I thought, why not review them together?

Dead Men Don't Ski is the first novel by Patricia Moyes, who started it while down with a broken leg (after a ski accident). Published in 1959, it's redolent of the kind of travel and lifestyle available to Britons abroad in the 1950s.

Scotland Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett is going on a ski holiday with his beloved wife Emmy, to the (fictitious) town of Santa Chiara in the Italian Alps. However, it's a working holiday; there's something suspicious going on at the place they'll be staying, and Henry's asked to keep an eye open for clues. The Albergo Bella Vista is indeed full of odd characters, but when the loathsome Hauser boards the ski lift (the only way to the hotel) at bottom a living man, and is dead when he reaches the top, the mystery kicks into full gear.

Everyone staying in the hotel has a secret...there's the Bright Young Things fresh from London, and the dour German family of Hauser's fiancee, and the stodgy British couple, and the glamorous Austrian baroness, and the dashing ski instructor. Everything moves at just the right pace, with descriptions of the town and the life people are leading done in great detail. The first couple of chapters detail the journey from London (train to Dover, a crossing over the channel, an overnight train to Innsbruck, a change to a local train to Chiusa, and then a local skier's special to Santa Chiara), and the hotel and townspeople depicted in loving detail. One is very conscious that this is just after WWII and it's still lingering in people's minds.

The conclusion is satisfying and enjoyable, and along the way there's good detective work (by both Henry and Emmy, who are an effective team) and some good characterizations. I found myself liking Colonel Buckfast, the male half of the stodgy British couple, and feeling compassion for him. But nearly everyone is likable here, and you enjoy the time spent.

This launched a long-running series that kept going until the late 80s, and I have them all...

Murder on the Matterhorn, published in 1951, is the second in a series of mountain-climbing-themed mysteries by Glyn Carr, featuring as detective a Shakespearean actor named Ambercromie Lewker, known as "Filthy" to his friends. (Get it? Filthy Lewker? Yeah, it's a bit too cute. Bear with me.) Lewker is off to Zermatt to spend a climbing holiday on the Matterhorn, and while there meets Leon Jacot, a former Resistance leader, now a wealthy sportsman who's going into politics. There's tensions and a death threat sent to Jacot, seemingly from an anti-communist activist group. (Jacot may be leaning toward Communism, which alarms some.) But then Jacot turns up dead one morning, seemingly after attempting an ill-advised solo climb up the Matterhorn in less-than-ideal conditions. Lewker, however, spots the body's condition and clues that he was suffocated, not killed in a fall, and investigates. Who is responsible? Were his political ambitions to blame?

Carr's knack for characterization is sometimes a bit lacking, but he knows his mountain climbing. (His real name was Showell Styles, and he was an accomplished climber.) His descriptions of climbing are his strength, and the plot holds up well. He does a decent job of describing Zermatt and the Swiss ambience, but he's not Patricia Moyes in that regard. (I love books with a good sense of place, and that's always a factor when I review books. Don't set a book in Hong Kong or Prague when you don't go out in the environment at all, and it might as well be Cleveland.)

It's also interesting to get into that early 50s mindset of anti-Communist paranoia, which was also a factor in his previous book, Death on Milestone Buttress.

It's not up to Moyes, who was a real wordsmith, but it's still enjoyable, and I'll probably read more in the series as I can find them....

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