Published in 1928, this is the first novel penned by the prolific Patricia Wentworth that I have read. Wentworth is the nom de plume of Dora Amy Elles, who spent most of her writing career in Camberley, no more than a cock’s stride from Blogger Towers. It introduces her most enduring, although sadly neglected, detective creation, Miss Silver. Most critics compare Miss Silver with Agatha Christie’s better-known female sleuth, Miss Marple, but Wentworth got there first, a couple of years ahead of Christie. Apart from a penchant for knitting and being female, it is hard, at least from this book, to see much more in the way of similarities.
Miss Silver, in truth, is a rather ethereal character, always there at the right place, ahead of the game with her deductions and not afraid to get stuck into action when the occasion calls. Behind the image of a dowdy spinster there is a figure of steely determination. She flits in and out of the action and it is difficult to determine quite how she came into possession of certain information or made a deduction that enhances the prospect of unmasking of the culprit. For those of us who like to see the mechanics of deduction take more of a centre stage, although perhaps avoiding the tedium that R Austin Freeman and, on occasion, Freeman Wills Crofts can bring to the process.
That aside, this is a rollicking tale, one that shows its age for sure, but its sheer entertainment value makes up for that. It has everything you would want; international criminals led by a masked Mr Big, heiresses who go missing, intrigue, snippets of letters, a drama played out in an atmospherically foggy London.
The plot is suitably ludicrous. Charles Moray has returned from a sojourn abroad after being jilted at the altar by Margaret Langton. Returning to his unoccupied house unannounced, he finds a suspicious meeting in progress, chaired by a man wearing a Grey Mask who receives reports and snippets of information from people who are known only by a number. Charles is shocked to recognise one of the agents, his former fiancée. What’s more, the subject of the discussion is a girl who will be “removed” if a “certificate” is found.
It transpires that the girl in question is the naïve, unworldly Margot Standing is set to inherit a sizeable fortune from her now deceased multi-millionaire father, if only her legitimacy can be confirmed. The gang, led by the man in the Grey Mask, are anxious to prevent this from happening and, if there is the prospect of Margot’s legitimacy being confirmed, will stop at nothing to eliminate her. The unfortunate girl at one point is almost thrown under a tram.
In a foray into Trollope territory, part of the resolution of the problem lies in the difference between the treatment of matrimony north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. I will not say more to avoid giving too much away but, needless to say, Miss Silver with the assistance of Charles Moray ensures that the tangled web of a case is resolved satisfactorily.
I will read more of Wentworth, if only to see whether Miss Silver takes more of a centre stage in later novels.