Four Solid Winners in the Miss Silver Series
… lined up in order of preference.
I admittedly have so far only read two other Miss Silver books besides these four — Grey Mask and The Chinese Shawl, respectively –, but based on the books listed above, my appreciation of the series is certainly increasing. Like Georgette Heyer’s mysteries (and to a lesser extent, Ngaio Marsh’s), all the Miss Silver books seem to come with a side order of romance, which is probably not surprising, given that this is where Patricia Wentworth started out. But once she had gotten the standard mystery and romance tropes out of her system that bogged down the first book of the series, Grey Mask, and are also still way too prevalent for my liking the fifth book (The Chinese Shawl — what most annoyed me there was the predominant “youthful damsel in distress” theme), it seems that she found her stride somewhere between that book and the next one (Miss Silver Intervenes). There are still common elements to all the novels; e.g., in addition to the invariably-included romance, like Marsh and Heyer Wentworth seems to be playing favorites: Once a character has been introduced as genuinely likeable, it is extremely unlikely that (s)he will turn out to be the murder — and if a superficially likeable character turns out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the end, there will be subtle hints all along the way that there might be more to them that meets the eye. And of the four listed above, I think Miss Silver Intervenes is still the weakest. But it’s clear that Wentworth’s apprentice phase as a mystery writer was over and done with.
In Miss Silver Intervenes, the detective (or “private enquiry agent,” as she prefers to style herself) is called in to untangle a web of deceit, blackmail and murder in a London apartment building, against the background of WWII food shortage and other restrictions of daily life (and I confess I can’t think of any other Golden Age mystery where one of the “good guys” is ultimately revealed to be a sausage king.)
Though both of the book’s main female characters have a whiff of snowflake / damsel in distress (and their beaux are consequently suffering from a mild form of white knight syndrome) — and there is perhaps a bit too convenient a use of the amnesia trope (which I don’t particularly care for, anyway) — what I really like about this book is the way in which Wentworth brings the effect of WWII to life, chiefly in one particular character, but ultimately in all of them. The mystery isn’t quite on the level of Agatha Christie, nor does it in fact reach the cleverness of that presented in the previous Miss Silver book, The Chinese Shawl, but the characters — especially some of the supporting characters, as well as the two policemen (CDI Lamb and Sergeant / later DI Abbott) — here begin to come alive and take on three dimensions once and for all (though I will say that Miss Silver herself had reached that point by book 5 already).
I’ve yet to catch up with the Miss Silver novels between books 6 and 11, but by the time she got to Latter End (book 11), Wentworth had definitely also weaned herself of the need to have “damsel in distress” heroines. There still are two such ladies as supporting characters, but the heroine is a young woman who can — and does — take care of herself extremely well, and is loved because (not in spite) of that by the hero … and both she and the hero repeatedly refer to the two ladies in need of rescue as “doormats” (albeit in a spirit of genuine worry about these ladies’ inability to put up a fight in their own behalf). — In terms of plot, again this is perhaps not exactly Christie-level clever; also, the setting is, facially, an exponent of the “toxic family relations explode at country manor” Golden Age staple … but it’s all done with such incredible panache that the characters downright burst off the page; and the murder victim of the piece is in the best Golden Age tradition of a thoroughly despicable human being without whose presence and continuous bullying and intrigues everybody is decidedly better off. — As in Miss Silver Intervenes, the policemen “formally” in charge of the case are DCI Lamb and Sergeant Abbot.
Miss Silver Comes to Stay (book 16) is an example of another Golden Age staple setting, the village mystery with sinister goings-on both in the village and at the nearby manor; and here we get to meet the third policeman that Miss Silver more or less routinely associates with, DI Randal Marsh, who is an old pupil of hers (Miss Silver was a teacher / governess and actually looking at a rather drab and modest sort of retirement before, by mere chance, she stumbled into becoming a “private enquiry agent”). — Randal Marsh, in turn, also meets his future wife in this book. This was the first book by Wentworth that I ever read, and I liked it well enough to continue my exploration.
ETA: Reread review HERE.
Poison in the Pen (book 29), finally, is one of Wentworth’s last Miss Silver Books — there are 32 in all. Again we’re on Randal Marsh’s turf, of which he has become Assistant Commissioner in the interim — but the driving force behind Miss Silver’s involvement in the case is DI Frank Abbot, who thinks “Maudie”, as he privately calls her, is the ideal person to gently worm her way into the social circles of a village beset by poison pen letters. This is, noticeably, also Miss Marple territory of course, and kudos to Wentworth, whose foray into this area I for once even prefer to Christie’s … albeit as always, not on the grounds of plot or intricacy of the mystery but chiefly on the grounds of the characters involved.
Based on these four books, I’m definitely going to continue my journey into Miss Silver’s world … and can I just say as a final note that I prefer my editions’ covers of Miss Silver Intervenes and Miss Silver Comes to Stay — both created by Terry Hand — to the much more ubiquitous recent one for the same ISBNs?
The new ones are stock images which — probably not entirely coincidentally — are also used for Georgette Heyer’s mysteries, e.g., see the cover of Detection Unlimited, to the left … where, incidentally, it fits decidedly less well than with Wentworth’s Latter End; but then, a disjoint between cover image and contents of the book is common ailment of most of the recent editions of Heyer’s mysteries.
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