Tag Archives: Miss Silver

The Ivory Dagger

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.

The Brading Collection

A review of The Brading Collection by Patricia Wentworth – 230318

At their most basic Patricia Wentworth’s novels have two dominant themes – a murder mystery and some romantic interest. Sometimes the two are stitched seamlessly together while in others the joins are painfully evident. Miss Silver’s seventeenth outing, originally published in 1950 and which goes by the alternative title of Mr Brading’s Collection, is one where the two seem to run in parallel and it is difficult to determine whether it is a romance with a murder thrown in or whether the murder mystery was intended to be the main focal point.

The book opens with Miss Silver turning down a commission. Mr Brading, the owner of a large collection of valuable jewels which he houses in a specially built strongroom, seeks her help as he is convinced that there are some rum but unspecified goings on. She takes a dislike to him and feels that his behaviour towards his secretary, Moberley, is tantamount to blackmail and that he deserves what he gets.

Meanwhile Stacy Mainwaring is facing a dilemma. She has been commissioned to paint the portrait of a larger-than-life stage artist, but it means returning to the area which she fled from a month into her marriage and running the risk of meeting her estranged husband, Charles. Stacy decides to take the commission and, inevitably, runs into Charles. Despite her better instincts, she still has feelings for Charles, portrayed as a masterful character, and goes weak at the knees in his presence.

Stacy is an exasperating character, the sort of woman who does the cause of feminism no favours. She is weak, impressionable, and easily swayed. It turns out that the reason why she fled from her husband was down to a simple misunderstanding and she was too weak or not confident enough to confront him. As a result, the couple endured three wasted years. As far as I was concerned, they were welcome to each other.

As for the murder mystery, inevitably Lewis Brading’s suspicions are well-founded. By the time that Miss Silver receives his cri de coeur, he is dead, shot in his strongroom. On the day of the murder, he had been overheard having a couple of heated telephone conversation and in the afternoon, unusually, he had a string of visitors, the last of whom was Charles who upon finding him dead raised the alarm. Brading’s new will, which left everything to his fiancée, was found in ashes on the desk.     

As the last person to visit him, Charles is the prime suspect and it looks black for him when it is discovered that it was his gun rather than Brading’s that was used to commit the murder. The growing sense of doom surrounding Charles sends Stacy into a tizzy as she fears the worst. Fortunately, Miss Silver is at hand and she directs her old charge from her governess days, Randall March, now Chief Constable, to pay particular attention to the two phone calls that put Brading into a bad mood and the two letters that he received that morning.

After all the fruitless testing of alibis, these hold the keys to unlocking the mystery. The resolution sees an increase in dramatic tension with a car chase, a plunge over a cliff near Catherine Wheel, the setting of the fifteenth novel, and a death bed confession. There are enough clues for the reveal not to be too much of a surprise and with Charles and Stacy finding a way to patch up their differences, Wentworth ensures a happy ending.

One of Wentworth’s strengths is her story-telling, he ability to engage her reader and keep them interested, even if the material is not the best. This book is a case in point.

The Case Of The Faithful Heart

In memoriam, Rupert Heath – the man who helped ignite my love for Golden Age Detective Fiction.

Exegit monumentum aere perennius

Requiescat in pacem.

A review of The Case of the Faithful Heart by Brian Flynn – 230213

There are some fascinating themes in The Case of the Faithful Heart, originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. It must be a tad disconcerting to open the papers and find that your death has been reported. At least, if you are a public figure, you have the opportunity to see what people really thought of you. This is what happened to novelist, Keith Annesley, on the fateful day of June 8th. He shared his name with an American politician and due to a mix-up on the editorial floor was to have serious and tragic consequences for Annesley and others.

Authors can be tricky characters, always prone to reinventing themselves to cover up a backstory. Flynn, exploring a theme used by ECR Lorac in Death of an Author where two writers assume different personae, gives his representative of the writing community a backstory that goes to the nub of Anthony Bathurst’s twenty-fourth case.

Alfred Lord Tennyson has rather gone out of fashion these days, but a feature of Golden Age detective fiction is how often his poetry comes up, whether it be Miss Silver who quotes the poet at the drop of a stitch or, here, where the knowledge of Aylmer’s Field provides Bathurst with a clue to the psychology of the person he is seeking. At least the reference is directly relevant here, in that Aylmer is also the surname of the vicar and the strewing of one grave with violets and another with yellow roses mimics the actions in the poem.

It is another case of an amateur sleuth having a busman’s holiday, Bathurst taking a well-deserved break in the Glebeshire village of Lanrebel. However, disaster follows him as does his reputation and it is not long before he is engaged by Ann Hillier to investigate the tragedies that have beset her family at Hillearys. Firstly, her mother, Jacqueline, returns in the car, bloodied and bruised, clothing ripped and grass-stained, only to expire from an overdose of chloral hydrate. She mutters “The Mile Cliff. Two” before she dies. The day after her funeral her grave is strewn with violets.

Then Ann’s brother, Neill, is found dead on a stormy night with his head stoved in – his grave is subsequently strewn with yellow roses – and then father, Paul, is found in his study, strangled, although he had a revolver with him. Bathurst investigates as a private citizen rather than as an adjunct to the police, although his calling card with its reference to Scotland Yard opens a few doors and he avails himself of his relationship with Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, to find some valuable information about a photographic studio. The bumptious attitude of the local Inspector, Rockingham, makes it less likely that Bathurst will cooperate with the official investigation.

Acting as Bathurst’s Watson is Annesley who has also come down to Lanrebel for a holiday and, initially, it is a baffling set of circumstances, with precious little in the way of clues or motive. However, Bathurst begins to see some light when the family physic, Pakenham, indicates that Jacqueline seemed to hold a candle for someone, and when Ann brings him her mother’s personal diaries which offer some clues about a long-lost love. A trip to an eminent public school in Trinket which, coupled with the reference made by the Reverend Septimus Aylmer to the Tennysn poem, provides him with the proof that he needs.

Annesley returns to Lanrebel to see the conclusion of the case and the duo wait in the graveyard at midnight to see whether the culprit will take Bathurst’s bait. No one turns up and there is a very good reason for that.

The story is fairly clued and I realised what was going on as soon as Bathurst found a vital piece of evidence amongst Jacqueline’s effects. The final resolution, though, left a few too many loose ends for my liking, the explanation of Jacqueline’s state of dress a little unconvincing and the explanation of Neill’s death too improbable. There was a feeling of a shaggy dog tale to the book, and the style smacks of a pastiche, but it is entertaining enough and the twist at the end makes it all worthwhile.

Miss Silver Comes To Stay

A review of Miss Silver Comes To Stay by Patricia Wentworth – 230211

I have always found Camberley’s finest, Patricia Wentworth, a bit hit or miss, a writer, though, who even with an indifferent storyline is able to produce a page turner. Miss Silver Comes To Stay, the sixteenth in Wentworth’s Miss Silver series and originally published in 1949, is definitely one of her better ones. There are all the hallmarks of a classic murder mystery – a story set in the English countryside, a vindictive murder victim, whose body found in the study with their head smashed in with a poker, several suspects, some of whom are more likely than others, a few red herrings and a twist at the end. Oh, and as it is Wentworth, the obligatory love interest, although by her standards it is rather muted.

One of the keys to being a successful sleuth is the ability to attract trouble, a character trait that Maud Silver has in spades. Her visit to a quiet English country village to stay with an old schoolfriend seems innocent enough, but her return coincides with the return of the Lord of the Manor, James Lessiter, who after twenty years’ absence has decided to return, to sort out his affairs and to put the house and estate, known as Melling, on the market.

There is reason enough for some of the villagers to be disturbed by James’ sudden return. Rietta Cray was once engaged to James, but the relationship was broken off. Her nephew, Carr Robertson, also has just cause. He realises that James is the man with whom his first wife eloped only to be abandoned penniless and to return desperately ill, to be nursed until her death by her cuckolded husband.

And then there is Catherine Welby who returned in penury from India after her husband had died and was allowed to live at the gate house at Melling for a peppercorn rent by James’ aunt. She had also accumulated some of the furniture from the main house – she claims they were lent to her but James insists that she not only stole them but also sold some to fund her lifestyle. His threats to not only evict her but to take her through the courts for theft and embezzlement push Catherine to the edge.

On the night of the murder, all three principal suspects visit Melling. On his discovery that James is the man who ran off with his first wife, Carr rushes out of the house threatening revenge. Fearing that he will do something rash, Rietta rushes to Melling through the woods, picking up the first coat she can lay her hands on and scratching her hand en route. James tells her that he has left her everything in his will, but the couple have a violent argument and in her rush to leave the house, Rietta leaves her coat behind. Catherine, who in an earlier phone call had revealed to Rietta she was desperate, was also lurking in the grounds. By the time Carr arrived, James was already dead and the coat that Rietta had been wearing was soaked with blood.

The police make their enquiries, while Miss Silver, in her inimitable style, having been engaged by Rietta to help her, busies herself in the background, using her unobtrusive presence to ferret out information that is beyond the grasp of the official investigators. There are some eavesdroppers whose information helps set a timetable of events and embolden the police, headed by Miss Silver’s former charge in her governess days, Randall March, to consider an arrest but she is not convinced they are on the right track. With her assistance the culprit is revealed, a surprise to almost all but the most diligent reader, although the clues are all there.

Lessiter was an unpleasant man who deliberately set out to upset the apple cart. Whether he deserved to be murdered is a moot point but Wentworth’s sympathies, at least in her narrative, are with his victims. Her deft narrative and character portrayals elicit sympathy for the predicaments that Rietta and Carr find themselves in. It is a tragedy bit there is one solace in that first loves wins out.

This is one of the better books by Wentworth I have read and is thoroughly recommended.       

The Catherine Wheel

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.