A review of The Key by Patricia Wentworth
This, the eighth in Wentworth’s Miss Silver series, originally published in 1944, is straight out of her playbook. There is a murder, an international conspiracy, and a bit of love interest, all told with her usual verve and pacy narrative. There being a war on, the international gang is made up of German collaborators one of whose members, somewhat surprisingly at first blush, has merged into the fabric of a quiet English town. The lure is to keep tabs on a German émigré, Michael Harsch, who is working away on developing a form of powerful explosive which could change the fortunes of the war.
When we first meet Harsch he has just finished his final experiment, has rung up Sir George Rendel of the War Office to make an appointment to hand his results over, and walks into the Ram for a drink. As he enters the premises, he has a shock and sees a figure from his past. He departs rapidly. It is a sliding doors moment. If he had taken a different path, there would have been a different outcome. Instead, he makes his way to the local church where he plays the organ and is found dead. The inquest gives a verdict of suicide, but not everyone is convinced. Sir George Rendel sends the dashing Major Garth Albany down to carry out his own investigations.
It soon becomes apparent that Harsch has been murdered in what is a variation of a locked room mystery. The door of the church was locked. There were only four keys to the church and the obvious inference is that one of the holders was the murderer. Our old friends, Lamb and Abbott, lead the investigation on behalf of the Yard and they have Harsch’s housemate, the rude and abrasive Evan Madoc firmly in their sights. Madoc is a keyholder, a pacifist, and, under the terms of Harsch’s will, would inherit his scientific papers. He had the power to kill the project stone dead.
Miss Silver is called in by Janice Meade, Madoc’s secretary, who also provides the love interest with the Major. Quietly, Miss Silver carries out her investigations and soon discovers that Lamb has got the wrong end of the stick and that there is more to the mystery than meets the eye. Her inoffensive, discreet method of investigation enables her to extract information from witnesses who would never have been so forthcoming to the police. She discovers a mischievous young boy who has some vital information about the comings and goings of the some of the key suspects including Madoc and the strange companion, Medora Brown. She soon unravels her relationship with one of the protagonists.
Then there is the village drunkard, Ezra, who bewails the fact that the beer is now so weak that it takes much longer and is more expensive to achieve the desired effect. He boasts that he has some vital information that will be worth a lot of money to him. Before he can cash in on his good fortune, he too is murdered, found drowned in a shallow patch of water, the worse for wear, having consumed some brandy, not his normal tipple, over and above his usual quantity of beer.
Alibis may seem cast iron but one of the key premises of this story is familiarity breeds contempt. People, so used to hearing things, can make mistakes or jump to conclusions. The murderer took advantage of this trait in human nature to evil effect and nearly got away with it. The denouement is not a result of deduction but a series of happenstance involving a negligently discarded seed catalogue, a shared telephone line, a nosy invalided woman, and an oh so handy neighbour. There are the usual red herrings and whilst I had my suspicions as to the identity of culprit, I was not certain until the dramatic ending.
Formulaic Wentworth’s tales may be, but she is a consummate storyteller and writes with verve and pace, and no little humour. The story shone light on the assimilation of German emigres into British society and revealed that they were viewed not without suspicion. The developing admiration of Abbott for Maudie was also a bonus of this engaging tale.