Cool Books in Air Conditioning: Patricia Moyes’s Murder a la Mode & Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

Matisse, “Woman Reading with Tea”

One never gets used to the Midwestern heat. My husband dislikes air conditioning, but in these record-high temperatures I couldn’t live without it.  Though I can be sprightly and cheerful  in front of fans blowing at top speed, I need the AC at night.

We struggled over the issue of AC for years.  No, my husband said.  But during a drought one summer, I bought the last air conditioner in town–I called many, many stores before I found one at Sears.  We stuck it in the bedroom window, wedged a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire beneath it, and then fanned out the plastic pleated shutters on either side.  Not the safest installation: the vampire Lestat held it up.

Even with central air and no vampire installations, the heat is exhausting. So I stayed home last week and took a mini-vacation indoors. And I read the perfect cool books. What can be cooler than the fashion world and a Graham Greene quasi-thriller?   I recommend:

1. Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes.  Patricia Moyes’s mysteries are delectable, especially Murder a la Mode, a cozy classic–now back in print, published by Felony and Mayhem Press.  Set in the 1960s at the offices of a London fashion magazine, it captures the hectic quibbling and high-pitched tension of the staff’s hurrying to put out the Paris fashion issue.  Having returned late from the spring show in Paris, they are still bickering over layouts at midnight.  The art department is histrionic, and only the level-headed,  soon-to-retire editor Margery French can soothe Patrick, the art editor, who refuses to give a double spread to an ugly hat:  “that…that pudding on stilts.”  Teresa Manners, the posh fashion editor, has a pitch-perfect fashion sense and insists that the hat will be the axis of the season.  Meanwhile,   Helen, the assistant editor, must stay behind to write the copy and photo captions after the others leave. When Helen is found dead the next morning from  cyanide in her tea, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates, with the help of his niece, Veronica, a model.  (P.S.  Moyes worked as an assistant editor at Vogue, so she gets the details of the fashion magazine just right.)

2.  Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Greene is one of the most intelligent writers of the 20th century, and his intelligent  well-plotted novels are peopled with intelligent men who agonize, Greek tragedian-style, about their emptiness and angst.  I am not Greene’s biggest fan–I prefer his pop predecessor, W. Somerset Maugham–but his characters definitely know how to be cool in the most volatile situations.

That is true of The Quiet American,which I recently read to stay cool.  The narrator, Fowler, an English war correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s,  has witnessed battles, bombings, and atrocities in the war between the French  and the Vietminh guerrillas.  He knows just what his newspaper will or will not publish, and he regards himself as an observer, not an activist.

The British empire has fallen, and Fowler cynically watches the new world politics enacted in Vietnam.  But when an American comes to Saigon and threatens Fowler’s way of life (and the Vietnamese way of life), Fowler eventually must act.  Pyle, an American employed in the Economic Aid Mission, seems at first friendly and naive, irritating and sincere:  he earnestly believes that  “a third force” can save Vietnam.   Pyle wants not only to Americanize Vietnam but to poach on Fowler’s personal territory:  he falls in love with and steals Fowler’s mistress, Phuong, after chivalrously warning Fowler of his intentions.  But when one of Fowler’s contacts tells him the truth about the death-dealing “plastics” industry Pyle is setting up, Fowler must cross a moral line.

Gorgeous writing, even though this book is not for me.   Greene needs only a paragraph or two, or a line of dialogue, to establish character and mood.   In the following passage, he describes his first meeting Pyle at a cafe.  Pyle asks to join him, because there are no free tables.

“Was that a grenade?” he asked with excitement and hope.

“More likely the exhaust of a car,” I said, and was suddenly sorry for his disappointment.  One forgets so quickly one’s own youth:  once I was interested myself in what for want of a better term they call news.  But grenades had staled on me; they were something listed on the back page of the local paper–so many last night in Saigon, so many in Cholon:  they never made the European press.  Up the street came the lovely flat figures–the white silk trousers, the long tight jackets in pink and mauve patterns slit up the thigh.  I watched them with the nostalgia I knew I would feel when I left the region forever.  “They are lovely, aren’t they?” I said over my beer, and Pyle cast a cursory glance as they went up the rue Catinant.

The Pyles of the world turn out not to be what they seem, and the Fowlers have more to them than you noticed.  Love the writing, but am indifferent to the book.  It’s something about Greene:  not for me.

Bubble Tea, A Mystery Swap, and Cindy or Sandy?

My cousin and I are sitting on the porch on a windy day slurping bubble tea.  We’re wearing old paisley bandannas (circa 1970s) to keep the hair out of our eyes while we pore over books for our annual mystery swap. My pile has surplus copies of Dorothy Sayers’s Have His Carcase and Busman’s Holiday, while hers tends toward  Laura Lippman and Patricia Cornwell.  We’re opposites, but we both do love mysteries.

We agree to swap Simenons:  The Two-Penny Bar, a moderately enjoyable book in which Maigret learns from a condemned man about a murder committed six years ago, for Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, which my cousin (a librarian) stole from a discard pile at the library. Though I never understand the Maigret mystique–all Simenons are alike–at least they’re fast reads.

With some reluctance, I agree to part with one of my favorite Patricia Moyes books.  (“That isn’t in my pile; you’re cheating.”)  If you haven’t read Patricia Moyes, who wrote 19 books in the Inspector Henry Tibbets series from 1959 to 1993, I can affirm that they are utterly delightful.  In the third book, Death on the Agenda, Henry goes to Geneva to a police conference on devising ways to stop narcotics smuggling. Emmy, his wife, goes along to see friends and shop.  And Moyes, who once worked as an assistant editor at Vogue, describes fashions in detail:  I yearn for the peignoir Emmy buys, a “white chiffon peignoir scattered with embroidered roses and edged with lace.” But the day after a posh party,  Henry is accused of killing an American cop who’s suspected of leaking information to the drug dealers.  Emmy helps Henry investigate, and what a web of lies, sex, money, and crime they untangle!

And so it’s philanthropy to part with a Moyes.  This is such a fun book!  But then we reach a crisis: should I trade my Janet Evanovich pile for her Laura Lippmans?  I love Evanovich’s heroine, Stephanie Plum, a doughnut-eating New Jersey bounty hunter, but the titles, which all have numbers (One for the Money, Four to Score), are interchangeable.  Which have I read?

“It doesn’t matter, because she eats doughnuts in every single book,” says my cousin practically.

We make the trade.

And then it happens.

A woman approaches.  With a clipboard.  That can’t be good.  And before we go inside, she is upon us.  She is campaigning for a candidate for the Democratic primary, and have I heard of Cindy?

“Which Cindy?” my cousin says.

The campaigner is startled.  “There’s only one.”

“I’m sure there are two.  Or is that Sandy?”

“I’m here for Cindy ___.  She’s concerned about Planned Parenthood, the environment, and mental health.”

I’m concerned about mental health,” my bipolar cousin says. “Does she know that a corporate psych hospital chain has been barred from moving in here, though the state has shut down five hospitals?  And that mental hospitals no longer allow the mentally ill to smoke, or take supervised breaks outdoors?”

Now the woman is rattled.  “Cindy wants to increase funds for mental health care facilities.”

Sandy wants to increase funds for research for psychotropic medications that will improve the lives of millions of people.”

“I do agree with Cindy on the environment,” I say, just to cut this short.  “I will vote for Cindy.”

The poor woman ticks off a bunch of boxes on her clipboard and thanks us.

“Now that,” I tell my cousin, “was outrageous.”

“I’m voting for Sandy.”

“Except there is no Sandy.”

What Could Be More Predictable Than Too Frothy Summer Reading? The Virgin & the Gipsy, A Too-Cozy Cozy Mystery, and a Very Simenon-y Simenon

The virgin and the gipsy lawrence pulp 586-1

I’ve already done my summer reading:  three silly books that would have been better saved for that horsefly-haunted fishing lodge I will find myself in soon.

But they are no less frothy than most of what will be promoted this summer!


D. H. Lawrence is one of my favorite English writers. I love his poetry, novels, and travel writing.  His style can be intense,  but I appreciate intensity. Why, why, why did I not get on a train to Nottingham, his birthplace, when I was in England?  Well,  he didn’t like Nottingham much. And he wasn’t that keen on England.

Is he still in fashion? I have no idea.  My obsession began when I saw the movie Women in Love, starring Glenda Jackson, who won the Oscar for Best Actress, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates, and Jennie Linden. And then I was enraptured by the novel Women in Love, though I tried to be cool about it, because my best friend thought it was very funny.  It is one of the strangest, loveliest, most seductive books I’ve ever read.  The Rainbow, its prequel, is even more stunning.  I also like  Sons and Lovers, his beautiful coming-of-age novel.

438 D H Lawrence The Virgin and the Gypsy Berkley 1And then there’s The Virgin and the Gipsy.

Mind you, I enjoyed The Virgin and the Gipsy, but Lawrence’s sexual philosophy can seem ridiculous when concentrated in a novella.  He needs a short story or a novel.

It is actually a typical Lawrence story  of forbidden sexual attraction between a middle-class woman and a lower-class man.  Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only sillier. It begins almost like a fairy tale.  The rebellious Yvette and her older sister, Lucille, are trapped in the rigid life of a rectory dominated by a grim granny referred to as the Mater.   We learn that their mother, Cynthia, left the rector for a penniless man when the girls were children.  And their Aunt Cissie sizzles furiously about the house hating both girls, but especially Yvette.

So, naturally, the girls like to get out.  One day the wild Yvette is out in a car with Lucille and  some other young people, and they almost run down a gipsy cart.  The cart finally gets over to the side of the road, but the driver is furious.

Yvette’s heart gave a jump. The man on the cart was a gipsy, one of the black, loose-bodied, handsome sort.

He asks if they would like their fortunes told.

She met his dark eyes for a second, their level search, their insolence, their complete indifference to people like Bob and Leo, and something took fire in her breast.  She thought:  “he is stronger than I am!  He doesn’t care!”

Yvette experiences pure sexual attraction.  This is a little overwritten, though.

Yvette has clandestine meetings with the gipsy.  Sometimes he drives his cart past their house and she runs out, other times Yvette resists.  She is also scandalizes her granny by befriending a couple who are living in sin while they wait for the woman’s divorce.

It’s a little silly.   Still, it seemed pure sex when I was an adolescent.

So maybe it’s a Y.A. book?


Moyes down among the dead men 41Im6NYYYiL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_I picked up a couple of mysteries by Patricia Moyes, because they were  very nice paperback editions with crisp pages. I THINK I read about them at a blog.

Well, damn, Down Among the Dead Men is just not that  good.

Chief Inspector Henry Tibbetts and his wife Emmy go on vacation with friends, Rosemary and Alastair, who have a sailboat.  And then they (and we) have to learn everything about sailing.

Alastair looked at him pityingly.  “If the jib didn’t have a port and a starboard sheet, how could you come about?”  Henry said he had no idea, and watched humbly as Alastair picked up another rope from the deck.

If the jib didn’t…?  It’s a lot like Nancy Drew. Everything has to be explained, and over-explained, until you’re ready actually to put your backs into it and heave ho!

Anyhow, they sail with a bunch of friends, including a saucy sexpot of a woman, Ann, whom the other women hate (including me).

And Henry figures out that a friend of theirs who died tragically was actually murdered.

And Ann puts her hands all over him and makes him promise to stop saying he was murdered.


Okay, but not good enough.  Maybe this isn’t Moyes’ best?


simenon grand banks cafe 41s2qOWJFAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of course Simenon is excellent, if you like that kind of thing.  The Grand Banks Cafe is a police procedural, straight investigation with no real rounded characters, and lots of re-creation of the crime going on in Maigret’s mind.

Maigret, a French detective, and his wife go on vacation in a fishing port so he can help clear the name of a teacher friend’s student, Pierre, who was the wireless operator of a ship whose voyage was apparently doomed.  (Lots of accidents.)  Pierre is  accused of murdering the captain after they came ashore.  The investigation gets stranger and more bizarre as Maigret discovers that a femme fatale was involved with three of the men on the ship.

Very tight, short, and fast.  One of the better Simenons.

And if you want it, it’s yours.  I’m giving away the Simenon.  Leave a comment if you’d like the book.