Miss Silver detective novels – Patricia Wentworth

I’ve been re-reading several of these books recently (they’ve been re-issued in rather nice retro covers, all from old advertising archives). I’d been vaguely aware of Wentworth’s mystery novels, featuring her former-governess detective, Miss Maud Silver, but only remembered reading “The Benevent Treasure” prior to the current orgy.

Miss Silver, consistently described in the books as a relic of the Edwardian age, is an intelligent woman of middle age. The long arms of coincidence which bring her into these stories of death and jealousy are various, but generally involve brief references to previous cases. The affair of the poisoned caterpillars has been mentioned several times, though I haven’t yet read the book (if there is a book) in which this occurs. Miss Silver is a perpetual aunt, who must have a voluminous correspondence, given the numbers of former clients, nieces and nephews, and children of friends with whom she keeps in close contact. Although most of the books are set during or not long after the Second World War, Miss Silver has maintained her governess attitudes, and doesn’t hesitate to reprove slang, or (what we would now consider mild) swearing. In fact, her very strict moral principles lend something of an edge to what could be considered very “cosy” stories of a post-war privileged class.

She is tolerated or respected by most of the police officers in the books, some of which re-appear from time to time: Frank Abbott, an officer of the Inspector Grant or Alleyn school of policemen who don’t look it; Inspector Lamb; and others. She’s generally called in by various principals in the cases, being adamant that she can’t just investigate without being asked. In this way, of course, she’s different from Miss Marple (who is older than Miss Silver, but who shares a fondness for knitting), who is not paid for her investigations.

The books are strangely addictive. I’ve read nearly all of them, and now have come to the point of spotting the murderer long before Wentworth reveals it. This is unusual for me, as normally I completely fail to identify whodunnit before the denouement. I guess that this is because Wentworth has her preoccupations, and the murderer usually has the same characteristics – intense selfishness, and one overweening idee fixe. It’s similar to Josephine Tey’s conviction, expressed in her detective novels, that the common failing of all criminals is their vanity.

Wentworth wrote some romance novels prior to her detective series, and it shows. There is nearly always some romantic sub-plot in her books, whether this is between a young woman and the man she loves; a formerly divorced couple realising that they’ve made a mistake (The Brading Collection); or a married couple understanding that they do love each other (Out of the Past).

I suspect that one of their charms is their evocative depiction of a previous time which no longer exists. Unlike Agatha Christie, whose longer career, and concern to stay current means that many of her books are more timeless (or more dated), Wentworth’s books are set very firmly in the wartime and post-war era, during black-outs and rationing, and a still-entrenched social order. Gossip, and the gleaning of important facts through listening to it, is an important part of these books, and thus the society of women is particularly well-described.

Particularly recommended from the books I’ve read: The Chinese Shawl, which has a superb atmosphere and an intriguing array of characters; and Out of the Past, with a most unpleasant victim, and no shortage of motive and opportunity for the remaining characters. The Clock Strikes Twelve is one I like to re-read, with its engaging characters, and interesting wartime setting.

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