Mystery author # 14: Patricia Wentworth

This time around I read three books for the review. Patricia Wentworth wrote about the same number of non-series mysteries/thrillers as she did Miss Silver books, but all I managed to get my hands on are Miss Silver stories, so the author review is based on them alone. (Typically, I came across some at the flea market on the weekend after I wrote the book reviews, but I’ll review them independently when I feel like reading them).

Title: Grey Mask
Series detective: Miss Maud Silver
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1928
Type of mystery: General crime
Type of investigator: Amateurs and private detective
Setting & time: London, England, 1920’s
Some themes: Blackmail, kidnapping, theft, murder

Story: Charles Moray returns to England four years after his fiancé, Margaret Langton, jilted him, a week before their wedding. He discovers that she is a member of a secret society and that some of its members are planning to cause an heiress, Margot Standing, to lose her inheritance. If she makes trouble or they can't pull off the scheme with treachery, they intend to kill her. Charles, who still loves Margaret, believes she knows nothing about the plot, but is still reluctant to go to the police because he isn't sure. So he goes to Miss Maud Silver, a middle-age woman who offers her services as a private detective. When Margaret rescues Margot, who has got wind of the plot and run away from her cousin whom the criminals intend to have the inheritance, it becomes clear to Charles that she is not really a criminal, and along with Miss Silver they begin to investigate the case and try to expose the mysterious Grey Mask who controls the secret society.

Review: A light and entertaining mystery with a thriller element and a comic touch. Some of the characters are over the top, especially Margot and Freddy, while others are convincingly realistic. The story is only so-so. The secret society thing is not really a good plot for a mystery to revolve around (much better for a thriller), the villain is visible a mile off and the ending leaves too many loose threads.

Miss Silver is not fully developed here and does not really appear that much in the story. We find out nothing about her background except clues from her surroundings and behaviour, and she is so totally wrong on a couple of occasions that it is obvious that Wentworth is playing some kind of game with both her and the reader. Until I read the next book I really thought she was meant to be a comic, bumbling kind of sleuth. She is instrumental in unravelling some of the truth, but the mystery really solves itself when the villain is forced to reveal himself because circumstances call for it. No-one seems to have suspected him at all (except the perspicacious reader). This is cheating. In a mystery like this, that has both amateur and professional sleuths working on the case, they should be allowed to solve it, rather than have the solution dropped in their laps, even if they were put in danger when it happened.

Rating: A so-so mystery, remarkable only for being the first Miss Silver story. 2 stars.


Title: The Case is Closed
Series detective: Miss Maud Silver
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1937
Type of mystery: Murder, howdunnit
Type of investigator: Amateurs and private detective
Setting & time: London, England, 1930’s
Some themes: Love, conspiracy

Story: Hilary Carew watches her cousin Marion die by degrees from mental anguish because of her husband’s jail sentence for murder. Geoffrey had been found guilty of murdering his uncle, who had disinherited him the day before the murder. He is considered lucky to have escaped the death sentence and has already served one year of his jail term. A chance meeting on a train with the wife of the uncle’s former housekeeper convinces Hilary, who had always believed that Geoffrey was innocent, that there is something fishy going on and so she begins an investigation. Soon she realises she is in danger and seeks the aid of her former fiancé, Henry, who calls in Miss Silver. Together the threesome delve into the case and seek out witnesses who were not called at the trial, and Hilary hounds the former housekeeper, who is a nervous wreck and too afraid of her husband, who is involved somehow, to tell the truth.

Review: This is a well-developed mystery-thriller. The plucky, likeable and hot-headed young heroine is brave and foolhardy, and it’s easy to see how her supercilious ex-boyfriend came to think her an airhead. Henry is one of those characters who are terribly irritating and utterly sympathetic at the same time. In his case, he is saved from being an arrogant, superior stuffed shirt by his obvious love for Hilary and his efforts to uncover the truth, even if it means admitting he was wrong (he thinks Geoffrey is guilty). Miss Silver is not much more developed in this installation than in the first, but she is less comic and more focused than in Grey Mask. The solution to the crime is here a team effort, every one of the three members (Miss Silver, Hilary and Henry) making valuable contributions that come together to make a solution.

This being a howdunnit, we are told in broad hints almost from the beginning who the villains are, and the story then revolves around breaking their alibis and finding out how they carried out the crime. My only complaint is that there are too many bleeping coincidences. Hilary meeting Mrs. Mercer on the train is a likely coincidence, but her running into Mr. Mercer at the pub, he and his crony finding her and attempting murder without first checking if it's really her, her stumbling into the Mercer’s cottage in the dark and later spotting Mrs. Mercer in a window five floors up, is pushing it a bit too far. I would be inclined to accept the pub and the cottage, but Hilary must have the sight of an eagle to see that Mrs. Mercer looks worried from five floors away.

Rating: A dark and enjoyable mystery-thriller that suffers slightly from too many coincidences. 3 stars.


Title: Latter End
Series detective: Miss Maud Silver
No. in series: 11
Year of publication: 1947
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Private detective and police
Setting & time:Rural England, 1940’s (post-war)
Some themes: Love, family, poison

Story: Lois, the gold-digging wife of Jimmy Latter, has made everyone’s life miserable since she moved into Latter End. She has managed to split up a group of people who have lived together like a family for more than two decades, by lies and clever management of her loving husband. When she dies from an overdose of morphia, two days after finally managing to antagonize Jimmy, suspicion falls on him, on Minnie, the former governess who has lived with the family like one of them for 25 years, and on Julia, Jimmy’s young stepsister. Jimmy, who had consulted Miss Silver when someone was sneaking an emetic into Lois’ food, making her think someone was trying to poison her, calls her in to investigate and she proves to be invaluable help to the police who are treating the case as an ordinary murder and suspect Jimmy because of his argument with Lois. The solution proves to be quite a bit more complicated than they ever thought possible, and Miss Silver unravels all with her painstaking investigation and nearly flawless reasoning.

Review: Here is one of those murder stories where you only have a small number of suspects and you really don’t want any of them to be guilty. This of course adds to the suspense and makes the story into a nail-biter. The solution should have been obvious to me because I recently read another story that has a similar solution, but I must admit that I was in the dark until late in the story when an unmistakable clue popped up shortly before Miss Silver revealed the solution.

Lois is a wonderfully devious villainess and Jimmy is the very image of a devoted husband who is blind to her faults. Minnie is over the top: helpless, meek, mild and grateful for all that is done for her, never wishing to make any trouble and getting stepped on by Lois. In fact, she is one side of the coin that has Miss Silver on the other, and perhaps she is made the way she is in order to contrast with her clever go-ahead counterpart. Miss Silver is finally a developed character, which is not surprising, this being book 11 in the series. She shows herself to be adept at police management, and is careful to make them think they are in control of the investigation.

This is a good puzzle story which gives the reader much to think about. But, like with the previous Wentworth books I reviewed, there is a complaint. There is a somnambulism scene. A silly, unnecessary one. I think Wilkie Collins can have had no idea of what he started when he used that device in The Moonstone. This loses the story a half star.

Rating: A suspenseful puzzle-plot story with a (perhaps) surprising) ending. 3+ stars.


Author review:
Wentworth is one of the British Golden Era writers, and her popularity is best shown by the fact that her books have not been out of print since they were first published. All three books that I read had romantic elements to spice things up, and the back cover blurbs of several others suggest that this is a common element in her novels. Her style is light and firmly in the cosy tradition and reminds me a bit of Georgette Heyer (in her mysteries).

The very first thing I thought when Miss Silver was described in Grey Mask was that she reminded me strongly of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, in that both looked harmless and unremarkable and were avid knitters. But of course it’s Miss Marple who reminds one of Miss Silver, as the latter predates the former by 2 years. In the subsequent Miss Silver books we discover that they have similar backgrounds: both are gentlewomen, born in Victorian times and raised with Victorian sensibilities and tastes, worked as governesses, love knitting and have numerous cousins and siblings who all love them. I’m not accusing either author of stealing ideas from the other, but I think it’s remarkable how they both took a specific type of person, the unremarkable governess type whom no-one expects anything much of, to use as a sleuth in their books. And of course the two ladies use different detection methods: Miss Marple looks at personality types and draws parallels, while Miss Silver uses more conventional sleuthing methods combined with clever reasoning. Miss Silver is a somewhat humorous figure, the author seems not to be able to resist making gentle fun of her, in the way she describes her mannerisms and way of speaking. Perhaps she is trying to show the reader how the characters in the stories see Miss Silver, this unremarkable but unexpectedly intelligent woman.

As entertaining as I find Patricia Wentworth’s books, all three I read had some flaw. In one the case solved itself after hard work had been put in by the sleuths to solve it, the second was overloaded with coincidences, and the third had a silly, unnecessary, cheesy scene. But I liked them anyway, especially the latter two, and will continue to read Wentworth’s books, although I will not especially seek them out.

Comments

Maxine said…
I really enjoyed reading the review of the three books and the way you tie them up at the end. I had no idea Miss Silver predated Miss Marple, and had vaguely thought it must have been the other way round (not that I did particularly think about it, I suppose it is just that Miss Marple is so much better known, as you imply).
I remember reading these Miss Silver books from the public library years ago and quite liking them -- as you say, mildly enjoyable but not "must reads". I have forgotten all the details of course.
Incidentally, I discovered someone else who is reading a book a day (romance mainly I think?) and referred her to your blog --Keris Stainton -- see
http://keris.typepad.com/home/2006/04/52_books_projec_3.html
She has a nice blog.
take care, all best
Maxine.
Bibliophile said…
Thanks for the reference. I'm thinking about trying to find as many 52 books and book-a-week blogs as possible and posting links to them. It's interesting to see the different choices people make.
Kerry said…
Wentworth's non-Miss Silver books are just trippy. The Cleveland Public Library system has several hardcover reprints from the 1970's. I'd love to see a "Mystery!" series of Miss Silver stories.
Bibliophile said…
Kerry, I agree - it would be nice to see Miss Silver on TV. A series about her would nicely fill the gap left by Murder, She Wrote.
et1961 said…
i just love miss silver she is such a wonderful creation she is always worth listening to.full of common sense criminals murderers look out miss maud silver is about
elijah said…
i dont think the miss silver books should be televised shes at her best in our imaginations
Anonymous said…
I love Miss Silver. I agree that Wentworth makes gentle fun of her, because, even to her clients (invariably young adults, in the 1930s and 1940s), she is old fashioned. But she has such a firm strong personality, she is unswayed by their modernity. I bought the entire Miss Silver series in the early 1990s, when HarperCollins reissued them in trade paperback. John Jinks did the artwork for the covers and the illustrations are all in very striking B&W art deco style. A really fabulous re-issue. I have to sell them (after I re-read each one!), because I simply do not have the shelf space any more, but I dread doing so. I read all these over about an 18-month period, and that may be why they impressed me so much. More than any of the Grande Dame mystery writers of that time, Wentworth caught that upper class, country manor house world and put it on the page in a gentle, humorous way, but she did it with telling details, not sweeping, melodramatic flourishes. If you're looking for blood and knives, or exciting car chases, Wentworth is not for you. (In fact, if you read closely, eventually you'll realize that all her murders happen off stage.) She takes you into an ordinary drawing room in the country and shows how people talk (or don't talk) to each other and how the minutiae of life goes on and, in the end, reveals unpleasant truths. And that's when Miss Silver pounces, having sat on the settee, knitting and waiting for all to be revealed.

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