The Red Lacquer Case

The Red Lacquer Case – Patricia Wentworth

Camberley-based writer, Patricia Wentworth, was nothing if not prolific, writing 66 books, thirty-two of which featured her most famous detective, Miss Silver. The Red Lacquer Case, published originally in 1924 and now reissued for a modern audience by the wonderful Dean Street Press, is outside of that series and can be best described as a thriller rather than a piece of detective fiction. The problem with prolific writers, I find, thinking immediately of Edgar Wallace and Georges Simenon, is that quality can be variable and plotting somewhat formulaic. Judging by this book the same could be said of Wentworth.

Don’t get me wrong, it is gripping enough and well-paced enough to make the reader want to carry on, but if you were searching for a book that would fit the description of a pot boiler with just enough about it to lift it above pulp fiction, this would be a prime candidate. It has got everything from a formula for a gas which if it fell into the wrong hands would threaten world peace, international spies and gangsters, patriotism, the obligatory love interest, an old, rambling country house to add a Gothic twist, a hand pressed against the window for the horror element, and rustic villagers to add comedic value.     

It is the misfortune of the heroine, Sally Meredith, to have an uncle, Fritzi Lasalle, who has developed the game-changing formula and is now so conscience-stricken that he wants to hand it over to those stalwart guardians of world peace, the British. Yes, really. In the interim, convinced that he is being pursued by agents acting on behalf of the Russians, as he is, he places the formula in the eponymous red lacquer case which has a fiendish opening mechanism. If an attempt to open the case fails, acid is released which destroys the paper with the formula on it. Surprise, surprise, Sally is able to open the case, and Uncle Fritzi rather drops her in it by disappearing, after hiding the case in Sally’s house and telling her where he has put it. Inevitably, when she finds his note and looks in the hiding place, the case has disappeared.

Coincidentally, Bill Armitage, now working in the War Office and Sally’s former fiancé, is also looking for the formula and the charming uncle. A series of fake telegrams put Sally’s life in danger – she is captured, held prisoner but pluckily refuses to imperil her country’s safety by opening the case – while Bill, thinking he was on her trail, is sent on one wild goose chase after another. The action builds up to its inevitable conclusion which I will not spoil. I will only add that the ending has a wry twist to it and the discussion about recipes for jams at the opening of the story is not for nothing.

There are moments of humour in the book, provided by the violinist whose discordant modernist screeches are meant to torture Sally into submission but provide her with an opportunity to effect her plans to escape and the garrulous old bed-ridden woman who is not quite all she seems. An oddity that strikes the modern reader is that the reason why Sally and Bill’s engagement foundered was that he took exception to her falling under the influence of the Suffragettes. Clearly this spirited filly did not know her place.

Great literature this is not, but if you are looking for a harmless way to spend an evening or two, this is no worse than some of the fare served up on television.

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