Touch and Go by Patricia Wentworth (1934)

When life got busier than I wanted, when I didn’t have much time or concentration for reading, I prescribed myself one of Patricia Wentworth’s stand-alone stories, and it was just what I needed.

This is a book with many ingredients that will be familiar if you’ve read the author before; but there are also some interesting variations that give this book exactly the balance I wanted between familiar and different.

There are two heroines.

Seventeen year-old Lucilla Hildred is the heiress to a large estate and a great deal of wealth, and she is very nearly alone in the world. Her father died in the Great War, she has just lost her mother and step-father in a car crash, and now her guardians are two much older cousins. They had to take her away from her school, her headmistress had insisted they do so, because more than one unexplained fire had broken out in her bedroom. That worried them, and they thought it best to appoint a young woman who would be both governess and companion, to watch over their charge.

Sarah Trent was that young woman. She came from a good family, she had been well brought up and well educated, but she was alone in the world and had to earn her own living. She said exactly the right things to Lucilla’s anxious Aunt Marina – who explained that she was a distant cousin with the courtesy title of aunt at considerably more length than she needed to – and was delighted to accept the post.

She met her new charge on the way home, when Lucilla tumbled out of the hedge and very nearly went under the wheels of her car. She didn’t know then that that wasn’t Lucilla’s first near miss; because it was some time later that the young’s lady’s other guardian – Uncle Geoffrey, who had a son the same age as Lucilla, who he rather hoped she might marry – told her what had happened at school.

That worried her, as did a number of other incidents that she would witness.

Sarah and Lucilla became great friends, but Lucilla would never confide in her about what was happening and she would never give any account of certain things that concerned Sarah.

There were three young men – and I suspected that there would be a hero for each heroine plus a villain. The first was a visitor to the area who had asked if he might paint in the grounds of the big house; the second was a young relation of Sarah’s previous employer who had become a friend and wanted to see how she was settling into her new job; and the third was Lucilla’s cousin, whose father was making plans for the pair.

As the story played out and I found out more I really wasn’t sure who to cast in each role, and I changed my mind a few times as the plot twisted. There were some developments that I could predict, but there were also some wonderful surprises, and I didn’t work out everything until the very end.

I probably should have worked it out, but the story stays close to Sarah, I learned things as she did, and I didn’t want to step away from her. She was a wonderfully independent and spirited heroine, who was quite ready to go out and do whatever she could to sort things out, and I liked her enormously.

I also loved her car – The Bomb – a wonderful character in its own right.

The evocation of the time and place is very well done; and I was particularly taken with the contrast between the gilded lifestyle of the Hildred family and the dark shadows cast by what was going on and by what has happened in the Great War.

This book is more romantic suspense than vintage crime. I am quite certain that Miss Silver would have worked out what was going on in no time flat, and sorted out Aunt Marina’s knitting – she dropped a ridiculous number of stitches – but I had no reason at all to regret her absence.

The story and the characters were engaging, the psychology was interesting, and I was very impressed with how much Patricia Wentworth could do with a very small, tight cast.

The final act was a little contrived, the romance had the author’s usual failings, but it was wonderfully dramatic and it was satisfying. My only real complaint is that the ending was a little too quick, and I would have liked to stay with Sarah for just a little bit longer to see more more reaction and to actually see what I thought would happen next.

I’m not sure that this is my absolute favourite Patrician Wentworth stand-alone – I loved Silence in Court and I loved Kingdom Lost – but they are quite different and so I really don’t want to choose between them.

I’ll just say that this was definitely the right book at the right time.

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