Tag Archives: Patricia Wentworth

Pilgrim’s Rest

A review of Pilgrim’s Rest by Patricia Wentworth

There have always been Pilgrims at Pilgrim’s Rest. Any member of the family who has the audacity to suggest putting the property up for sale seems to meet an untimely death. There is not something nasty lurking in the woodshed, more something unpleasant lying in the cellar. The body count is high in this, the tenth in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver series, originally published in 1946 and which goes by the alternative title, Dark Threat, in the States, a curious but entertaining story.

The set up requires a suspension of belief as there is coincidence after coincidence. Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott just happens to bump into a Judy Elliott, for whom he has been carrying a flame but has not seen for a year, and she tells him that it just happens that she has accepted a job offer at Pilgrim’s Rest which just happens to be in the village where Frank grew up. Frank does not want her to take the job because some strange things have been happening there over the last three years – a disappearance, an odd horse accident, and two near-death experiences for the present incumbent, Roger Pilgrim.

Indeed, Frank has advised Roger to consult Miss Silver over his fears that someone is out to kill him, having survived a ceiling falling down around him and a fire. Miss Silver obliges and settles in at Pilgrim’s Rest, ostensibly to protect Roger. She fails miserably, as Roger falls out of a window to his death, ignoring her advice that he should not proceed with putting the house up for sale. The other son, who has been taken prisoner of war in the Far East is reported as having died, conveniently, at around the same time and so responsibility for the house passes to an invalid cousin who is under the constant care of a live-in nurse.

Miss Silver, convinced that the deaths of Roger and his father were suspicious rather than unfortunate accidents and that there was someone who was determined to prevent the sale of the house, wonders whether it is all linked to the mysterious disappearance of one of the family three years ago. A search of the house reveals a grisly secret, as well as a whiff of cannabis indica, but who could be the culprit. Was it the butler, Robbins, who hides a dark family secret and is occasionally spaced, the two maiden aunts, one a gardening enthusiast and the other one who takes delight in her various incapacities, or the nurse who has been living in for just over three years?

Much of the charm of the book is the interplay between Miss Silver and two of her favourite detectives, Abbott, an ardent fan of hers, (no Lamb this time) and Randall March, whose governess she used to be, but who on this occasion becomes exasperated with her theorising that disturbs what, to his mind, is an open and shut case. Oddly, the culprit is revealed with a good chunk of the book still to go, and they get away with it. The rest of the book generates some thrills and spills with an abduction and a car chase and the simmering love interest which flits in and out of the story line comes to a surprising end.   

There are too many coincidences for this plot to work, but Wentworth is a good story teller, the narrative is well-paced, and the reader is happy to let her guide them where she wills. Her books are never classics, but usually entertaining. This one fits the bill.

Traveller’s Return

A review of Traveller’s Return by Patricia Wentworth

Picking up a Miss Silver book by Patricia Wentworth is the equivalent of comfort eating. You know it is going to be enjoyable, but undemanding. Traveller’s Return, which goes by the alternative and more Trollopian title of She Came Back in America, is the ninth in the series, originally published in 1945, fits the bill perfectly. In some ways it is a follow up from her previous book, The Key, as several of the characters in that book appear here.

The nub of the book is the similarity in appearance of two women, Anne, the wife of Sir Philip Jocelyn, and her cousin, Annie Joyce. Sir Philip and friends make an attempt to rescue the two from occupied France under enemy fire. In the mayhem, one of the women is shot, identified by Sir Philip as Anne and is buried as such in the family graveyard, while the other is accidently left behind to an unknown fate.

With immaculate timing three and a half years later, as Sir Philip is taking up a sensitive position in the War Office and about to propose to one of his wife’s bridesmaids, Lyndall, Lady Jocelyn, Lazarus-like, reappears. She claims that it was she and not Annie that had been left behind and had endured a miserable existence under German occupation. All she desires is to be reunited with her husband and return to normality.

Unsurprisingly, Sir Philip is shocked and is convinced that not only had he identified his wife correctly as the dead woman but that the new arrival is an imposter, likely to be Annie Joyce. However, at a family council summoned to decide the matter the woman is able to convince the family that she is Lady Anne because of the depth of knowledge she has of the minutiae of her former life. Sir Philip has no option but to agree to a trial reunion.

The mystery, if it can be called as such, is whether the woman really is who she says she is. If not, who is she and why has she returned? Lyn spots her going into the backroom of a hairdressers in London. When challenged about it, she convinces Lyn that she was mistaken. A young woman who grew up with Annie and talks to Miss Silver on a train on a way to an appointment to see Lady Anne under the clock at Waterloo station is killed, presumed murdered. She was convinced that she could have recognised Annie without a shadow of doubt. Indeed, anyone who has any intimate knowledge of Annie seems to be in danger of being killed.

Miss Silver, who does not appear until midway through the book and has no official role in the investigation, sets out to solve the conundrum while the police are represented by the familiar duo of Lamb and Abbott. The interaction and repartee between the three are the book’s highlights, Abbott continuing to be in awe of the astute, perceptive spinster while Lamb suffers her interference.

What might have been a case of inheritance seeking – Annie’s branch of the family missed out on its fair share of the estate – takes a much more sinister turn as we learn more about what goes on in the backroom of the hairdressers. It becomes a tale of traitors and secret agents. In the denouement the reincarnated Lady Anne is murdered and the eminence grise of the ring of collaborators is unmasked. The identity of the latter is about the only mild surprise in what is a third-rate mystery.

Wentworth’s female characters may be a little too insipid for modern tastes, but there is no getting away from the fact that she knows how to write a story. Even though it is fairly easy to spot what is really going on, she draws her readers in and keeps them entertained. Sometimes, it is good to give the grey cells a rest.

The Key

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.

The Clock Strikes Twelve

A review of The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth

It has taken a while, but I am beginning to warm to Patricia Wentworth and her Miss Silver series, of which The Clock Strikes Twelve, originally published in 1944, is the seventh. It can be called a typical country house murder mystery in that James Paradine dies in his pile and the only probable suspects are those who attended the dinner on New Year’s Eve, 1941.

Wentworth makes the decision, rightly, to spend much of the first half of the book developing the characters of the various relatives who were seated around the dinner table and exploring their complex relationships. It would not be a Wentworth book without a love match that is going off the rails, a marriage between Phyllida, James Paradine’s adopted niece, and Errol Wray, who works for the family firm, that hit the rocks almost as soon as it had begun. However, rather than being an unnecessary distraction, the dynamics of the relationship are central to the plot and gives some sense to what happened on that fateful New Year’s Eve.

Wray’s arrival at the dinner after a year’s separation from his wife causes feathers to fly and the atmosphere is further poisoned when Paradine announces that someone at the dinner table has betrayed the family interests, that he knows who that person is, and that he will be in his study until twelve o’clock to give that person time to confess, and to make amends. The cat firmly put among the pigeons, some of the guests leave as soon as it is socially acceptable to do so, leaving the others to wonder what James meant and what the problem was.

During the course of the evening, there were several comings and goings to Paradine’s study, even visits by some who had seemingly made an early exit, and, inevitably, Paradine is found dead just after midnight, having taken a tumble over a low parapet. Was he pushed or was it an accident?

The police investigations clearly suggest that James was murdered and with good reason they believe that the main beneficiary of James’ will is their prime suspect. He agrees to call in the services of Miss Silver who just happens to be in the area. Oddly, the police seem grateful for her assistance. It emerges that there were two incidents that may have provoked James’ ire – some secret plans that he was working on had disappeared, albeit temporarily, and the replacement of his pride and joy, some diamonds, with jewels made of paste.         

Much of the investigation takes the form of examining the stories and alibis of the guests, some of whom see fit to change their stories as time goes on. These sections of a book can be tedious but Wentworth, as always, has a light touch and a fine sense of pace, dwelling on each aspect sufficiently for the reader to get the gist of what is going on, but not long enough for them to lose the will to live. There are enough twists and turns and red herrings to satisfy the most demanding of Wentworth’s readers, even if the plot is not that complex and the culprit is relatively easy to spot.   

Miss Silver is more of an intuitive sleuth, a reader of people’s characters and motivations, rather than a deductive investigator. Like her knitting, the pieces all begin to hang together, and she is able to reveal what has gone on, the identity of the culprit and their motives in a set piece in front of all the suspects. The named culprit takes matters into their own hands, but the book, cleverly, ends on a note of ambiguity. There is another culprit who could easily have killed Paradine. Were they pipped to the post by the other person, or did they really do it?

I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one which renewed my faith in Camberley’s finest author.

Miss Silver Intervenes

A review of Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth

I must confess I have struggled with Patricia Wentworth at times. This book, though, her sixth in the Miss Silver series, originally published in 1943 and also going by the alternative title of Miss Silver Deals with Death, is one of her better ones. There is a welcome return for two of her stalwart police officers, Lamb, now Chief Inspector, and Abbott and a namecheck for Frank Garrett, surely enough for the taxonomists to claim it as belonging to his series.

It falls to Miss Silver, though, to work out what is going on at Vandeleur House, a once great London mansion but now converted into eight flats. Conveniently it has a ledge running around the exterior of each of the floors and a fire escape connecting each ledge. It also, conveniently, has a caretaker who regulates his life like clockwork, leaving his post at 8.30 pm each night for a pint and a game of darts, and the spare keys to the apartments unguarded in his room. Such seemingly mundane pieces of information acquire increasing importance as the tale unfolds.

It would not be a Patricia Wentworth tale without a damsel in distress, in this case Maude, Mrs Underwood’s niece, who was torpedoed whilst crossing the Atlantic with her fiancé, Giles. Giles is presumed dead but Maude spots him in London where he tells her that, conveniently, he has lost his short-term memory. Maude takes him back but is mortified when Carola invites her into her flat and shows her a photograph of Giles taking pride of place. Maude assumes that Carola’s story that Giles is her husband at face value. She goes from despair to ecstasy to despair in double quick time.       

The sleuth is consulted, rather hesitantly, by Mrs Underwood who eventually reveals that she is being blackmailed. The woman she suspects that is behind the blackmailing, Carola Roland, is found dead, bludgeoned to death with a statuette which has been cleaned but left near the body. One of her diamond rings has been switched, replaced by one with a stone made of paste. One of the residents who has fallen on hard times suddenly comes into some money. It emerges that she had switched the gems and sold the ring. Giles, conveniently, recovers part of his memory and sets Maude’s mind at rest but goes up to Carola’s flat.

Did he kill Carola or was her murder Mrs Underwood’s attempt to stop the blackmail or the consequence of the gem switch or was there more going on?

There are some wonderful characters in the story, not least Mrs Smollett, the charlady who “does for” many of the tenants and is an inexhaustible source of information about the characteristics, foibles, and backgrounds of her clientele. Time spent helping her doing the washing up provides Miss Silver with invaluable information. She is convinced that blackmail is behind the murders and that Carola, far from being the blackmailer, was a victim herself of a much larger blackmail ring.

Miss Silver becomes increasingly interested in the exterior fittings of Vandeleur House, the night-time somnambulism of Mrs Underwood’s maid, and the backgrounds of some of the other helpers employed by the tenants. A trip to Tunbridge Wells clarifies matters in her mind and in a set piece she calls all the residents of the apartments to a meeting in which she reveals both the whodunit and the howdunit elements of the story. Sergeant Abbott is in awe of her masterly resolution of a problem which seemed to be beyond the police who fell hook line and sinker for the obvious.

It is not the most complex of plots, for sure, but the book is an engaging and entertaining read. The character and style of Miss Silver is now settled. If only Wentworth would lose the love interest.