Miss Tibbles Investigates
Recently, on one of AAR’s discussion lists, there was a discussion about the quality of current Regencies. I used to buy Signet Regencies quite regularly, and although April Kihlstrom wasn’t a must buy like Joan Wolf and Carla Kelly, I did often buy and enjoy her books. When I received Miss Tibbles Investigates, I was curious about how it would compare. Imagine my disappointment to find her latest didn’t live up to my memories.
Centered on the inhabitants of Kendall Hall, the story, at first, has promise. We’re introduced to Pamela Fairchild, granddaughter of the Earl of Kendall, who is in love with lifelong friend and neighbor, Julian Deerwood. Unfortunately, Julian is in love with Catherine Winley. Julian asks Pamela to invite Catherine and her mother for a visit to Kendall Hall, so that he can spend more time with his love. Because she wants Julian to be happy Pamela reluctantly agrees, though she has never met the Winleys.
In the meantime, Pamela’s mother, Lady Anna Fairchild, is increasingly concerned about her husband’s fixation on a packet of mysterious letters. He won’t talk to her about them and she fears something dire is about to happen. To alleviate her anxiety, Anna sends for her former governess, Miss Tibbles.
The other members of the household are also concerned about the letters. Lord Fairchild’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Kendall, are worried about his increasing isolation. Lady Gwendolyn Avery, Fairchild’s great Aunt, is convinced the missives must have something to do with one or both of her grown children, Richard and Daphne Avery. And when Catherine and her mother arrive, they become embroiled in the problem as well.
As must happen in every Regency Romance set in an English country manor, a ball is held in honor of the houseguests. And as also must happen in every cozy mystery set in an English country manor, a dead body turns up in the library a day after the ball. Everyone had a reason for murder, and surprise, surprise – Miss Tibbles Investigates.
As I wrote this summary, I realized it is a perfect illustration of the problem with this book. One paragraph to describe the romance, then three paragraphs to describe a mystery plot that quickly overwhelms what is already a pretty underwhelming romantic pair. It’s not apparent in the earlier scenes, but Julian is twenty and Pamela is only sixteen. Julian decides he loves Pamela instead of Catherine after he sees Pamela in her new dress. I’m not kidding. He is worried about her safety in a household where murder has occurred. She thinks he can’t love her because he may still be in love with Catherine. That is the extent of their romance.
As for Miss Tibbles (whose name made me think of a cat), picture a cross between Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, only younger. She’s a take charge kind of woman who also manages to get everyone to confide in her. If she isn’t collecting tidbits from one of the household, she’s overhearing the exact piece of information she needs to further her investigation. And this is an investigation that is fully supported by the local magistrate, who has never met her before, but nevertheless lets her examine the body, participate in the questioning of suspects, and generally just leaves things to her. It reminded me of all those Murder, She Wrote episodes, where the every police detective, in every town Jessica visited, was content to leave the solving to Jessica.
In addition to the magistrate’s inexplicable response (he’s not written as a blundering idiot), there are problems with some of the other characterizations as well. At times Pamela is far more mature than her mother, Anna. Anna seems to revert to childhood every time she talks with Miss Tibbles. It’s true that Miss Tibbles was her governess, but according to the chart at the beginning of the book, their age difference is five years – not enough to excuse Lady Fairchild’s lapses. Catherine Winley is portrayed at various times as scheming, friendly and victimized, which is a problem, because these incarnations have no actual relation to what is going on.
Which brings me to my grade. The mystery, though not that original, would appeal to readers of cozies, and did hold my attention. I’m also aware that Miss Tibbles appeared in several other books, so there are those who will enjoy seeing her again. However, and this is key, the romance was so weak as to be almost beside the point. Joan Smith has written some regency mysteries that are billed as such; perhaps Ms. Kihlstrom should follow her lead.