A review of The Ivory Dagger by Patricia Wentworth – 230422
The Ivory Dagger, the eighteenth in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver series, originally published in 1950, falls into three parts. The first seems to come straight out of a Victorian melodrama where a unfeeling guardian, Lady Sybil, is railroading her weak but beautiful ward, Lila Dryden, into an unsuitable marriage to a rich older man, Sir Herbert Whitall. Then it morphs into a version of Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor as shortly before the nuptials Lila is found over Sir Herbert’s body, an ivory dagger by her side bearing her fingerprints and her white dress smeared with his blood. In the third part is a conventional murder mystery as Miss Silver, brought in by Lady Sybil, and the ever-adoring Inspector Abbott, later joined by the curmudgeonly Chief Superintendent Lamb, get to grips with solving the case.
This was the first of three novels that Wentworth published in 1950 and the book bears the hallmarks of a rushed job to meet a deadline. The book is written as a standalone novel rather than as part of a series, an approach that allows her to cut and paste sections from earlier works describing Miss Silver’s house, her dress, and her relationship with Abbott, to name just three areas. There is also a major omission in the conclusion to the book. She never satisfactorily explains why Lady Sybil, who had grounds enough to murder Sir Herbert, was never considered to be a suspect and why she was forcing Lila into marriage. Were the suggestions that she had run through Lila’s inheritance and that Sir Herbert knew and playing that knowledge to his advantage well founded?
Sir Herbert Whitall is another in a long line of characters in detective fiction whom a motley crew of suspects would rather see dead. Rather conveniently he assembles them all at his country home, Vineyard, for a dinner party and, surprise, surprise, he is murdered later that evening, found dead in his study with an ivory dagger, one over which he and a fellow collector, Professor Robinson, had argued over its authenticity. The prime suspect is the somnambulist, Lila, found on the spot red-handed, but no one in the house can believe that such a painfully weak character could summon up the courage to commit murder.
Among the other suspects is Bill Waring, with whom Lila was unofficially engaged and whom we meet in the opening chapter, lying in an American hospital after a railroad accident. When he returns to Blighty he learns that Lady Sybil has taken advantage of his absence and enforced silence to secure her ward’s future elsewhere. He rushes to Vineyard to rescue her and is on the scene when the body is found. Or was it Withall’s impecunious cousin, who was due to inherit his fortune under a will that was about to be changed due to the forthcoming wedding? Or was it the long-suffering secretary with whom Sir Herbert had an affair and a child who bears a grudge now that he is marrying someone else? Or is it the bumptious Professor whose magnifying glass was found at the murder scene?
Miss Silver and Inspector Abbott have their work cut out as they piece together the clues, each interview with a suspect throwing new light on the case and gently leading the reader to change their mind as to whodunit. It is Miss Silver, naturally, who spots that the butler’s assistant, Frederick, is the key to the mystery and it is through his evidence that the culprit is unmasked.
To my mind, the book only really gets going in the third section, the first two parts being a little to leisurely for my taste, as much intent on ensuring that there is enough love interest to keep the romance fans happy as moving the plot along. Nevertheless, for all the signs of rush and some straggly loose ends that even Miss Silver would struggle to knit something out of, Wentworth is a consummate storyteller and this reader was happy enough to switch his mind off and enjoy the ride.
My takeaway is that someone who seems to be doing their job might just not be.