A review of The Catherine Wheel by Patricia Wentworth – 221224
From a plotting perspective The Catherine Wheel, the fifteenth in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver series and originally published in 1949, is a bit of a mess. It starts off with a with a whiff of smuggling, then side tracks into a suspected crime passionnel before returning to the world of the smuggler. It reads as though Wentworth had a bit of an internal conflict over which way the book should go.
The story starts promisingly enough. The rich eccentric Jacob Taverner puts an intriguing advertisement in the papers seeking members of his disparate family – there has been a long-standing family split – and with the lure of £100 each invites them to spend a weekend at The Catherine Wheel, a pub that has been in the family for generations. By this means Wentworth has produced the old Golden Age Detective fiction trope of a bunch of disparate characters spending a weekend together. What could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, the Catherine Wheel has been on Scotland Yard’s radar screen as a potential hub for the smuggling of drugs and jewellery back and forth the Channel. Sergeant Abbott is sent down to investigate along with Miss Silver, whose role is to observe the goings-on at the pub at close quarters.
Among the invited guests are Jane Heron and Jeremy Taverner, who are in love, but Jane is reluctant to marry as they are cousins. Jane has met Miss Silver before, and it is through her good offices that Miss Silver is given the opportunity to stay at the Catherine Wheel and observe the guests at close quarters. A visit to the nearby Challoner’s home, where Abbott is staying, allows Jeremy to reveal a secret which puts his and Jane’s love affair back on track.
The other love interest is between Eily, a maid at the pub, and John Higgins, another of the selected cousins but one who steadfastly refuses to enter the premises. He makes his presence known to Eily by whistling the air of a well-known hymn. However, his are not the only eyes on Eily. She has caught the attention of Luke White, another cousin, albeit one “born on the wrong side of the blanket”, who works at the pub as a waiter.
Inevitably, there is a murder, Luke White found stabbed in the back in the hallway. Eily is the one to find him, although yet another cousin, Florence Duke, is close by covered in blood. Higgins’ tell-tale whistling was heard around the time of the murder. Inspector Crisp from the local police believes it to be an open and shut case, a murder committed by Higgins who took exception to White’s overtures. Miss Silver begs to differ.
The reader by this point is slightly bemused because the complexities of a smuggling plot and Jacob Taverner’s attempts through questioning his guests to find a secret passage to the beach seem to have been long forgotten. However, they come back with a vengeance as Miss Silver aided and abetted by her acolyte Sergeant Abbott slowly piece together the truth behind the murder and the bigger picture that it reveals. Most of the real culprits are easy to spot, but the tension ramps up as Eily is kidnapped and the long arms of the law and the knitting needles of an amateur sleuth are closing in.
Wentworth’s storytelling saves this messy plot from collapsing in on itself and makes for an entertaining if overlong read. Her characters are nicely drawn and there is no little wit and sharp observation. One of the charming aspects of the book is her note to her readers at the beginning that Miss Silver’s cough is an affectation rather than a sign of illness. It must warm the cockles of an author’s heart when a character she has created jumps off the page in the minds of her readers.
Miss Silver lives to fight many more battles.