(A ‘Miss Silver’ mystery)
It is late December, 1941, and the Paradine family are gathered as usual to celebrate the New Year: James, his sister Grace, her adopted daughter Phyllida; James’ step-son Frank Ambrose, his sister Brenda, wife Irene and Irene’s sister Lydia Pennington; the cousins, Mark and Dicky, and an even more distant relation, James’s secretary, Albert. However, at dinner on New Year’s Eve, James causes an unpleasant sensation by bringing Elliot Wray, Phyllida’s estranged husband, to dinner, and announcing that important documents – blueprints detailing some of his firm’s important war work – have been stolen by one of the members of the family. If he doesn’t get the documents back, with an apology, before midnight, he will name – and shame – the culprit the following day. He then retires to the library after dinner, ready to receive the culprit’s confession.
Understandably, the party breaks up early, with the Ambroses and Lydia returning home, and Mark and Dicky also returning to their homes in the same town. Elliot is forced to stay the night, though Grace evidently resents this necessity.
The following morning, however, James is found dead, having fallen to his death from the terrace outside the library. Examination of his body indicates that it was unlikely to be an accident, and the police are called in. Realising that Mark appeared to have the strongest motive (he would inherit most of James’s money), Lydia arranges for him to hire Miss Silver to investigate the crime and “find the truth”.
This is one of my favourite of Wentworth’s Miss Silver books: I love the war-time ambience, with the black-out, and the sense that the characters are doing important work, and the war itself provides motive for at least one character. I also like the sense of family and the relationships between the characters – Lydia and Dicky’s teasing relationship is amusing, as he keeps asking her to marry him, for example – as well as the estrangement between Elliot and Phyllida, and as we learn how this has been brought about and maintained. Irene’s endless involvement in her two children – she seems to think of nothing else – is funny, but seems to also put her into danger: like almost everyone else, she didn’t stay at home after they returned from the dinner party. It’s interesting to see how Miss Silver sorts out all these movements and makes them logical and consistent.
Her involvement is to the point and well executed; she brings out all sorts of hidden secrets through her sympathetic listening and reasoned deductions. Wentworth plays fair with the reader, too, in presenting information to the reader also available to the characters (possibly apart from Frank’s confession, which she has to leave to the end because of the way it reveals the murderer).
Like most of her books, Wentworth likes a romantic sub-plot, and the reader feels an investment in Lydia’s relationship with Mark, and in Elliot and Phyllida’s rapprochement. It’s in the relationship between the sexes which perhaps shows how much conventions have changed since Wentworth was writing, though Lydia is a more modern character, with her ‘fast’ brocade trousers, mascarared eyelashes, and willingness to fight her man’s corner. Phyllida is a little more passive, and not nearly as tough.
I do like the way the characters are drawn – it’s one of Wentworth’s strengths. One feels that one knows the family intimately after only a short time: James’ rather sarcastic sense of humour and imposing manner hide a kind heart; Frank reveals a strength of character and honour that isn’t immediately apparent (though it does make the reader wonder idly why he married Irene, who seems to have fewer than two thoughts to rub together); Grace is the backbone of the family, though she’s a little too proud of the fact; and so on.
I’d recommend this one as one of the best to start with from the series (it’s the fifth, I think).