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I suspect most mystery fans are familiar with the four great female mystery writers of what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction; Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham. Earlier in this series, Emmett wrote about the works of Ngaio Marsh in Death and the Dancing Footman, and I looked at Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. A Dorothy Sayers review is in the works and eventually we will get around to Ms Allingham.

But there were other mystery writers working at the time, one of them, Patricia Wentworth, introduced a character a bit like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in 1928. That was before Agatha Christie wrote Murder at the Vicarage in which she introduced her little old lady sleuth. However, Miss Marple did appear in a short story in 1926. When one considers the era in which these characters were created, it is no surprise that we would see women taking an active role in the world around them. Especially middle-aged or elderly spinsters.  England had quite a few after the Great War. And at this distance it is impossible to guess if Christie influenced Wentworth, or the other way around.

Patricia Wentworth
Patricia Wentworth
Patricia Wentworth was an Army brat back in the day when being an officer in the British Army held a fairly high social status. Her father was serving in Massoorie, Uttarakhand, India where she was born as Dora Amy Elles on November 10, 1878. Though raised in India, she and her brothers were shipped back to their grandmother’s house in London for their education.  She attended Blackheath High School which was, and still is, a private day school for girls with the motto of “a place to grow, a place to excel”.

Finishing school, she returned to her family in India where she met and married her first husband, retired Army Colonel George Dillon, a widower with three children. Her husband passed away in 1906, leaving Wentworth with their young daughter and three step-children.

She took the children back to England where she wrote historical novels between 1910 and 1915. In 1920 she married again, this time to a Lieutenant.  Gordon (George) Turnbull was a believer in her writing ability and spent his days taking her dictation in longhand as she produced her many, many books.

Her most popular character was Maud Silver, the star of 32 novels, a middle-aged retired governess who opened a private enquiry office serving the middle and upper class families of England. She has a penchant for recording each case in its own colored copy book, knitting endlessly, and quoting Tennyson. And solving mysteries.

Book Cover of Grey Mask
In Grey Mask she is called upon by Charles Moray who has newly returned to England after having been jilted and left standing at the altar four years earlier by Margaret Langton. On his first night in London, while staying at the Luxe Hotel he paid a visit to the childhood home that he has inherited. Hearing voices in an upstairs room he sneaks into a nearby clothes closet with a peephole that he knew as a child. There he watches a mysterious gathering led by a man in a grey mask and attended by others known only by number, and not name. They are discussing a plot to rob a young girl of her inheritance. Moray does not recognize any of them and is about to leave to summon the police when his ex-fiance appears and delivers some documents to the man in the grey mask.

The young heiress is 18 year old Margot Standing, whose wealthy father has died at sea. Her legitimacy is in question and no will has been found. Running away from the other possible heir, her cousin who plans to marry her, she is rescued by Margaret. Charles, still unsure of Margaret’s involvement but determined not to turn her in to the police calls on the formidable Maud Silver.

Miss Silver sat in front of a pad of pink blotting-paper. She was a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head. She inclined her head slightly, but did not offer to shake hands.
Miss Silver is an almost invisible player in the story. Somehow, through her contacts in society and with the police she manages to quite often be exactly where the action is taking place. And she always knows which are the right questions to ask our protagonist to lead him to the mystery's resolution.

The point of view shifts between the different main characters in the book, giving us a glimpse into the air-head that is Margot Standing as well as the mixed romantic feelings of Charles and Margaret.  The characters are not deeply drawn, although I swear I have met Margot somewhere before. The characters are engaging and there is a humor to this work that Christie didn't often display.

‘I can’t take your case unless you’re going to trust me. I can’t work for a client who only tells me snippets and odds and ends. “Trust me all in all, or not at all” is my motto. Tennyson is out of fashion, but I admire him very much, and that is my motto.’

Charles looked at her with the suspicion of a twinkle. What a Victorian little person! He became aware of a half-knitted stocking on her lap, steel needles bristling. It seemed to him very appropriate.

He twinkled, and replied to her quotation with another: ‘The Taran-Tula Indians say that you may catch a snake by the tail, but you should never trust a woman.’

Miss Silver looked sorry for the Taran-Tula Indians.

I found interesting the dialogue and the language of the 1920s.  Because Wentworth used the slang of the era the book felt securely anchored in time and place. The mystery itself was not difficult to solve for the reader, but it was fun to watch the participants try to figure it out before it got them killed.

I did have a quibble with the use of the name Grey Mask to label the villian.  While I accept that in a novel one must have some means of identifying the bad guy, everyone seems to know this bad guy by the name of Grey Mask. I'm not even sure why it bothered me, but it did.

My understanding is that later Miss Silver novels feature more of her than this introductory one. Wentworth's series was covered in a story that appeared in Piecework Magazine last year about knitters in mystery novels. Many of her books are now available as ebooks, for which I am grateful as I plan on reading more.

From the Cozy Mystery website, here is a list of Patricia Wentworth's work:

Grey Mask   '28
The Case Is Closed   '37
Lonesome Road   '39
In the Balance   '41 (aka Danger Point)
The Chinese Shawl   '43
Miss Silver Deals in Death   '43 (aka Miss Silver Intervenes)
The Clock Strikes Twelve    '44
The Key   '44
She Came Back   '45 (aka The Traveller Returns)
Pilgrim's Rest   '46 (aka Dark Threat)
Latter End   '47
Wicked Uncle   '47 (aka The Spotlight)
The Eternity Ring   '48
The Case of William Smith   '48
Miss Silver Comes to Stay   '49
The Catherine Wheel   '49
Through the Wall   '50
The Brading Collection   '50 (aka Mr. Brading's Collection)
The Ivory Dagger   '51
Anna, Where Are You?   '51  (aka Death at Deep End)
The Watersplash   '51
Ladies Bane   '52
Out of the Past   '53
Vanishing Point   '53
The Silent Pool   '54
The Benevent Treasure   '54
The Listening Eye   '55
The Gazebo   '56 (aka The Summerhouse)
The Fingerprint   '56
Poison in the Pen   '57
The Alington Inheritance   '58
Girl in the Cellar   '61

The Blind Side   '39
Pursuit of a Parcel   '42

The Astonishing Adventure   '23
The Annam Jewel   '23
The Red Lacquer Case   '24
The Black Cabinet   '25
The Dower House Mystery   '25
The Amazing Chance   '26
Hue and Cry   '27
Anne Belinda   '27
Will-o'-the-Wisp   '28
Fool Errant   '29
The Coldstone   '30
Beggar's Choice   '30
Kingdom Lost   '30
Danger Calling   '31
Nothing Venture   '32
Walk with Care   '33
Devil-in-the-Dark   '34 (aka Touch and Go)
Fear by Night   '34
Blindfold   '35
Red Danger   '33 (aka Red Shadow)
Seven Green Stones   '33 (aka Outrageous Fortune)
Red Stefan   '35
Hole and Corner   '36
Dead or Alive   '36
Down Under   '37
Mr. Zero   '38
Run!   '38
Who Pays the Piper?   '40    (aka Account Rendered)
Rolling Stone   '40
Unlawful Occasions   '41 (aka Weekend with Death)
Silence in Court   '45

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Progressive Hippie.

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