The Phoenix’ Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins (1936)

It is a rare and lovely treat, to pick up a book certain that you will love it but with no knowledge of what it will hold.

I spotted this book in the closing-down sale of a lovely local second-hand bookshop. I didn’t recognise the title but I did recognise that name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone, and so I had to buy the book.

Online research confirmed the book’s existence but nothing more. I went back to the library to see if it was mentioned in Elizabeth Jenkins’ memoir. It wasn’t. The contents of my book were still a mystery.

It sat on a shelf in a bookcase where I keep interesting old books for quite some time, until it caught my eye a week or so ago and I decided that it was time I started to read.

With the world as it is right now, we need to be kind to ourselves and to the people around us, and for me one of the things that means is reading some of the ‘special books’ that have been waiting for exactly the right moment.

The story opens on a September afternoon in Elizabethan London. The Queen’s barge is sailing down the Thames, as part of the celebration of victory over the Spanish Armada. A group of actors is watching from a high window. They include the leader of their company, Mr Edward Alleyn, an exceptionally tall man with a remarkable presence; Mr Edward Juby, a flamboyant actor who always played the leading lady and loved society; Mr Thomas Tallis, a good-natured family man and a consummate professional; and young Nicholas Pavey, who Mr Alleyn had to lift so that he could see the scene on the Thames and who would grow up to be a great actor.

It was only when they turned their attention back to the new play that they were rehearsing – a play that followed the fortunes of a shepherd named Tamburlaine – that I realised that there was at least some fact mixed with the fiction and thought I should look it up to see where I was in the life of Christopher Marlowe, because my knowledge of Elizabethan theatre is sketchy to say the least.

I found out where I was, and I found out that each and every character I had been reading about was a real historical figure. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote non fiction about the period, but I was impressed with how real and alive she made her story.

Mr Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner, an impresario and a good friend to the company of actors. He was an intelligent and ambitious man, a widower whose home was managed by his two step-daughters. Bess was gregarious and loved to play the hostess, while Joan was content with the company of her small family and happiest when she was at work in the kitchen.

When Mr Alleyn made an offer of marriage to Joan he was delighted; not simply because the role of Tamburlaine had made him a star, but because he could see that he was a kind and modest man, unspoiled by his success, who loved Joan as much as she loved him.

They would be wonderfully happy together. He had the wisdom to settle close to her family home, so that she would have their company when he was away, and she blossomed.

Bess loved her sister, she loved seeing her so happy, but her own life was less successful. She escaped an unwanted suitor by answering a request from a playwright she had met as a guest of her step-father to go to Newgate Prison to make the payment he needed to be released. What she experienced that night shocked her, as did learning more of the man she had admired; and her family were horrified that she had gone out alone and at the possibility that she could have brought the plague home with her.

This is not a plot driven book, it is a book that follow the lives of the Henslowes and the Alleyns over a period of years.

It is beautifully written, there is not a single false note, and I particularly loved that way that Elizabeth Jenkins evoked the period and the lives lived without having to pause for description. Every detail was right, nothing was forgotten, and every character’s story was managed beautifully.

At first I thought that this was a good book, but as it went on I was so engaged by the character that I decided that this was a very good book and that it would be lovely if it was reissued.

Elizabeth Jenkins’ work is very diverse, and maybe that makes her a hard sell in this day and age, but she deserves to be remembered for more than her two works currently in print and this book deserves to be much more known than it is.

Christopher Marlowe reappears. There will be more plays and there are rumours that he works for Francis Walsingham. There is a visit to John Dee, who tells fortunes for Joan, Bess and their friend Eleanor. And there is a dinner where Francis Drake and Christopher Marlowe are both present and the conversation is a joy.

Even better than that was the illumination of the different courses the life of a gentlewoman could take, through the stories of Joan, Beth and Eleanor, who marries a much older man, not for love but because it is the best of the limited choices open to her.

I loved that, I loved the evocation of Elizabethan London, and I loved the human story.

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey (2020)

I don’t watch out for many new crime novels, but I do watch out for Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books.

Why?

Well, I’ve come to like Maeve and to appreciate her progress of her career and her life over the course of nine books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, and she is a little less inclined to rush in without thinking things through now. I appreciate that she is both capable and vulnerable, and that she feels so real that I can easily believe that she is at work in London doing what she does.

The nine cases that I have seen have been diverse, they have been engaging, and they have addressed interesting issues. Some of the stories – including this one –  have been a little too dramatic to be true, but the characters, the psychology and the emotions are always right.

This investigation begins when a severed hand is found on the bank of the river Thames. It is established to be the hand of a young woman, more remains are found, and though it seems unlikely that she can be identified every effort is made.

An identification is made, not as the result of that diligence but from a routine DNA check.

The dead woman was a freelance journalist, she lived alone, she was quite solitary, and so she had hardly been missed.

Maeve found that she had had been hard at work on a story about the Chiron Club, the most exclusive private members club, to which only the richest and most privileged men in London could gain admission. She saw signs that there were things much more dark and dangerous than the  usual kind of ‘boys will be be boys’ bad behaviour that you might expect in such an institution; but to investigate such a powerful and secretive institution would be far from easy.

The plot is well constructed, compelling and frighteningly authentic.

The details were right, characters and incidents were utterly believable; and when twists came they were in no way contrived, they came naturally out of the story.

That made me feel very close to events; that I was living through everything that happened.

That plot is set against significant developments in the live if Maeve and her colleague, friend and landlord DI Josh Derwent. What happens comes quite naturally out of the history that has built up over past books, and though i saw what was coming to some degree I was also taken by surprise.

I don’t want to say too much about specifics, but this side of the story was every bit as compelling, every bit as well executed as the story of the investigation.

The characterisation of the two characters and their (platonic) relationship is as complex and as realistic as anything I have read in contemporary fiction, and I am so anxious to know what happens next.

(You could read this book as a stand-alone mystery, but I have to recommend going back to the start of the series and reading every book!)

The drama and incident held me to the very last page, and though I wasn’t entirely convinced by they final resolution of the story of the murdered journalist, and though I had spotted something that Maeve didn’t realise was significant until quite late in the day, I was quite prepared to accept that life was fallible and that sometimes people can do things that take you completely by surprise.

I could do that because the story as a whole felt real and authentic and relevant.

I shall be surprised if I read a better piece of contemporary crime fiction this year. And I am already anxious to read Jane Casey’s next book.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

‘Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.’

In 1672, Cornelius and Johan de Witt, brothers and prominent citizens of Holland were charged with treason and sentenced to exile. Cornelius had been tortured in the hope that he would confess to plotting with the French king, but he said not a word. He was guilty but he was safe in the knowledge that the evidence was safely hidden. 

His silence did not save them. The authorities, and William of Orange in particular, wanted rid of the troublesome pair and so they manipulated the situation. The two brothers were lynched by an angry mob early on their journey to their place of exile.

The opening chapters of the story were a little more difficult to follow than I had expected, but I kept going because it was Dumas, because I understood that this was real history, because I knew there would be tulips, because I had read much that was positive about this book, and because I’d had in mind for my 100 Years of Books for quite some time.

I’m glad that I did.

The story moves to Cornelius van Baerle, a wealthy young man who lived quietly in the country and devoted his life to his tulips. He studied them, so that he could grow the very best flowers and develop new varieties. When the Haarlem Tulip Society offered a prize for the first black tulip presented to them, Cornelius set to work. Not for the prize, not for the glory, but for the chance to introduce such a flower into the world.

He didn’t know that his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, had the same ambition; or that his motives were self-serving and that he was prepared to go to any lengths to win and to ensure that his neighbour did not. 

Cornelius van Baerle was the godson of Cornelius de Witt, but he had followed his father’s advice to steer clear of politics; and that may be why when his godfather asked him to be the custodian of a packet of letters he accepted readily and put it away safely. 

His neighbour didn’t know that, but he had seen the visitor and when he heard the news of the murders he denounced his rival to his authorities. The packet was discovered just where Cornelius had put it, and his protestations that he had no knowledge of the contents were greeted with disbelief.  He had just enough time to hide his three black tulip bulbs in his clothing before he was taken to the same prison where his godfather had been held.

Rosa, the beautiful and spirited daughter of Gryphus, his brutal jailor, came to love Cornelius. She feared that he loved tulips more than her, but she loved him more than enough to do everything she could to help him to grow his black tulip in secret. He did love her, but he knew that his future was uncertain and so he was unwilling to say or do anything that would confirm his feelings.

Neither of them knew that Boxtel was close at hand, plotting and scheming to capture the bulbs.

Cornelius knew that he might not live long enough to see his black tulip flower.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

The story that plays out is captivating,  it is  wonderfully readable, and this short novel holds a great deal more than most other books with similar proportions. Every character, every incident, every dialogue, has its purpose; and the plot, a lovely fiction spun around real history, is very well built by a very fine craftsman.

There are echoes of his other work, it is recognisably his work, but it is also quite distinctive.

There is a beautifully handled romance, there is wonderful suspense and intrigue, there is a nice dash of comedy, and there is a race to present the black tulip that leaves the outcome for all concerned in doubt to the very end.

The conclusion ties all of the plot strands together, and a little glimpse of what the future held was a lovely final touch.

The Forgotten Smile by Margaret Kennedy (1961)

We have been having some long overdue building and decorating work done, and one of the consequence of that has been that I have had to pack a good number of my books away. While I was going through the difficult process of deciding which books I could part with for a few months, a book by Margaret Kennedy caught my eye, and I realised that I hadn’t read any of her work for a very long time.

That had been deliberate, because I only have two novels left and I hate the idea of running out, but once the idea of reading them had lodged in my head I couldn’t shake it our again; and the idea of visiting a Greek island while the weather raged outside was simply irresistible.

The Forgotten Smile is Margaret Kennedy’s penultimate novel, and it is mainly set on the island of Keritha, Like many of her novels, it tells the separate stories of a number of characters whose paths cross and it moves backwards and forwards in time.

Doctor Challoner is an elderly academic, and he is in Greece and on his way to Keritha to collect an inheritance from his aunt and uncle. His grand-father’s second wife had been Greek, she and her two children had never really felt at home in England, and so when her husband died she took her children home. Freddie and Edith had lived there for all of their lives, happily and rather unconventionally. Though Doctor Challoner had no feelings about them and no interest in their home or their island, he was set on recovering certain family heirlooms.

While he is on his way, he encounters Selwyn Potter, a former student, who was academically brilliant, good-natured, but socially awkward. Doctor Challoner wasn’t overly pleased to see him, he didn’t think to ask what he was doing there or why he had become a school-teacher, but as he could not speak modern Greek he took him along to act as his interpreter.

The sky was dazzling and the sea was a very dark blue shot through with streaks of green and bronze like a peacock’s tail.  The distant islands, scattered about the horizon, were pale lilac and pink in the triumphant light.

When the two men reached their destination, Selwyn was surprised to be greeted by Kate Benson, whose children he had known at school and who he had always considered to be the best of mothers. She remembered him somewhat less fondly, as the clumsy young man who had broken her coffee table, but each would both discover that the other had an unexpected journey to reach that particular point in the world and in their life.

The two histories that unravel are both expected and unexpected.

Kate felt disregarded by her husband and underappreciated by her children. It might be true that she had not handled their transition from children to adults with lives and relationships of their own as well as she might, but even if that as the case they had judged he harshly and thoughtlessly. That was why she decided to do something that she had always wanted to do – she went on a cruise. It as not a great success but it took her to Keritha. She went for a walk while the rest of her fellow travellers sat on the beach, she met some old school-friends – Freddie and Edith Challoner; they invited her to stay – and she did. A visit home showed her that her absence had consequences that she had not foreseen, and that maybe that was no longer her place in the world.

Selwyn had thought that he had found his place in the world. He had never thought that he would but he did, and then he lost almost everything through no fault of his own.

He had been, she perceived, too happy for safety.No refuge was left to him in a world which had completely disintegrated.

These two stories of separation and loss, rediscovery and recovery, are set against a very different story.

Keritha was a tiny island, away from the tourist routes and largely untouched by the modern world. The old ways still prevailed,  it was pagan and it was primitive, and that gave it its own particular magic. Alfred and Edith appreciated that, Kate and Selwyn appreciated that, but Doctor Challoner would have none of it; because though he loved the classics he had no interest in anything at all beyond his chosen sphere. He considered the island backward and the islanders barbarous; he just wanted to collect his inheritance and leave, but on Keritha – and particularly for the heir of the man who had been dubbed ‘Lord Freddie’ the world just didn’t work like that!

In the early stages of the book my overriding thought was that I was reading another very good Margaret Kennedy novel. Her writing was elegant and evocative, she  was clear-sighted, she was psychologically acute, and she made these characters and their worlds – both Keritha and England –  live and breathe.

I was particularly taken with the two leads, Selwyn and Kate. I knew these people, not well because Margaret Kennedy is an author who shows rather than introduces her characters. I understood them and I empathised with them.

There is a little comedy here, among the more serious and complicated emotions, and though it isn’t something I usually associate with her work I have to say that she handled it very well.

As I turned more pages I my thinking shifted, because I was so very impressed by one thing : how cleverly she was gradually revealing different aspects of her characters and their lives. I didn’t think about how she might end this story, but when I reached the end I thought that it was exactly right. It was a final chapter for this book but not a final chapter in the lives that were illuminated in its pages, and I appreciated it was left open with just a little suggestion of what might happen next.

‘The Forgotten Smile’ is both recognisably Margaret Kennedy and distinctive in her body of work; and thought I cannot say that it is her very best work I can say that there are things her that she did as well – and maybe even better – than she had before.

Bel Lamington by D E Stevenson (1961)

When you want to escape into a book that is warm and engaging, as I did a little while ago, you could do well to turn to the work of D E Stevenson.

You need to choose carefully, because her books are rather variable, and think that I chose well when I chose this one. I warmed to the heroine from the first, and I appreciated that the book held many of the ingredients that D E Stevenson used regularly – and very well – mixed with more that enough other ingredients to make it distinctive.

This isn’t her best book; it isn’t a book that would stand up to very much scrutiny; but it is mid 20th century romantic fiction done rather well.

Bel was orphaned when she was just three years-old; when her mother and father died in car accident; but she had a happy childhood with an aunt who loved and cared for her. Sadly, her aunt died when Bel had only just finished growing up, and the small income that they lived on died with her. That meant that Bel had to start earning her own living, and so she trained as a secretary.

Her first job was as a typist in a London shipping firm, Copping, Wills and Brownlee, and she was quickly promoted to the position of secretary to junior partner, Ellis Brownlee.

She was promoted because she worked diligently, she watched everything that was going on and thought about it, and she took a genuine interest in what she was doing and the work of the company. Sadly – but maybe inevitably – that made her unpopular with other female staff members, who all seemed to be marking time until they didn’t have to earn their own living, or bitterly accepting that they had to work and doing as little as possible. Miss Goudge, who oversaw them all, would be a terrible thorn in Bel’s side, and she really had no idea how to deal with that.

The author had a good grasp of the dynamics of an office, there are characters and incidents that I know will ring a bell for anyone who has worked in an office, and I felt for Bel as she succeeded and as she struggled.

Away from work, Bel was lonely. She had come to London knowing no one at all, and she hadn’t found a way of making friends. She spent all her evenings and weekend in her small flat, and the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window became her greatest passion.

A handsome young artist named Mark discovered Bel’s garden when he when he wad out on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat. Bel took the arrival of a strange man in her home rather more calmly than I would have, but I put that down to her background and her upbringing. He was charmed, they became friends, and that led to his painting of Bel’s portrait.

Mark invites her to parties, takes her on outings, and for a while it seems that Bel’s lonely life is over. But Mark’s interest waned as quickly as it had grown up,  and he moved on without a backward glance. Bel wasn’t quite heartbroken, but she was disappointed and unhappy at the prospect of returning to her solitary, lonely life.

Luckily she was persuaded to attend the unveiling of her portrait, and it was there that she bumped into an old school friend, and they quickly discovered that they were kindred spirits.

Louise was only child of a widowed doctor, she had no need to earn her own living, and she was every bit as happy to have Bel come and stay with her as Bel was to escape London and stay with her in the country. Her father was delighted with the friendship; not just because he thought that Bel would be a good influence on his warm-hearted but rather flightly child, but because he was a kind and thoughtful man who was pleased that he and his daughter would be able to help and a young woman who wasn’t having the easiest time of it.

The drawing of this friendship was lovely.

Louise was disappointed that Bel couldn’t join her and her father on their annual holiday in Scotland, but she understood that her friend couldn’t take time off while  Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip; and so she was greatly surprised when her friend did come to join her.

Something had gone terribly wrong, and Bel had fled.

Scotland was a wonderful refuge, but would it offer Bel a new start or would travel south with Louise?

The Scottish scenes and characters were well done, but I found nothing that I hadn’t found in more than one of the author’s books before.

This book had a well drawn cast of characters, well evoked characters and situations, and a lovely heroine.

I enjoyed that set-up more than the rather predictable playing-out; but the ending was exactly right and I will probably pick up the sequel when I want to to escape into a book of the kind that D E Stevenson did particularly well.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett (1975)

When I reached the end of this book, the sixth and final volume of the Lymond Chronicles, I was emotionally drained and somewhat bereft, I had a head full of thoughts but little idea of what to say. I’m not sure that I have much more idea now, but I am going to start writing and see what happens.

I was lost not just because I had reached the end of a series of books, but because the world of that series of books was so vividly realised and the drama that was playing out in that world was so captivating that I have no choice by the be pulled right in; and because the depth and detail was such that I knew I hadn’t seen and understood everything. I will go back one day; I have known that for a long time, and my return became more and more certain.

This sixth book opens not long after the fifth book closed.

Lymond is in France, having been propelled their not by his own wish but by the wishes of friends who knew that the course he planned himself – a return to Russia – would inevitably lead to the destruction of his life. He was still set on that course, but the French were well aware of his talents and his value to them, and so a choice was set before him.

He could stay for one year in the service of France, after which he would be granted that annulment of his ‘marriage of convenience’ that he had been seeking for some time; and if he chose to reject that offer, the French would see that the annulment would never be granted.

He chose to stay.

This opening led into a glorious cavalcade of dramatic scenes; from a spooky and unsettling spell in the chamber of the Dame de Doubtance; to the unveiling of a character in disguise that I was so happy to see again; to a chase that echoed another in ‘Queens’ Play’ and that told me how far the characters had come and their relationships had evolved ….

I could go on, but I don’t want to say to much to anyone who is still on their journey through this series of books or to anyone who is contemplating starting that journey.

The time and place for this final act was perfectly chosen, and worked so well for those individual scenes and for the story as a whole. The court was preparing for the marriage of their Dauphin to Mary Queen of Scots – who had appeared as an infant in the very first book if this series – and the military was fending off the English, who were understandably concerned about the strengthening alliance between their neighbours to the south and to the north.

There are still two main strands to this story; two continuing quests:

  • Phillipa Somerville was still working to uncover and untangle the history of the Crawford family, in the belief that truth and honesty were always the best thing. The evidence that she uncovered seemed contradictory, a rational explanation seemed elusive, and she would be led to a very dark place that might destroy and would certainly damage her….
  • Meanwhile, Francis Crawford, continued to try to loosen the ties that bound him to others, to find his own place in the world, and was quite prepared – and quite willing – to die in the attempt rather than compromise. He found though that he had to do everything that he could for the people who loved and had served him, and that maybe there might be a way that he could do the right thing without having to break those ties ….

The evolution of these two complex and engaging characters over the course of six books – her from a child into a capable and accomplished young woman; and him on a journey far to difficult to neatly summarise – has been an utter delight.

Every significant character left alive was dawn into this final story. I found that I gained new understanding of some of them, that I wished to have seen rather more of certain others, and that there were one or two who were compromised just a little to allow the story to play out as it had to.

I want to say about this last book the same thing that I said about the first –  I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, talking at very great length …

Her quality of writing; her world building; her depth of characterisation; her story telling; I found so much to love.

My favourite moments in this book were the most wonderful declaration and the realisation that I had been held in suspense to the very last page, suspecting but not really knowing how this grandest of stories would end.

I would love to know what happened next, I would love to read that stories that must have been happening before and after and to one side of the stories in these six books; but all I can do is go back and read then again, because I am quite sure that there are things that I have missed, I know that there are things I don’t quite understand, and I am certain that there is more to be revealed on a second reading.

Even if there wasn’t, I would want to step back into this world and live though this glorious telling of the life and times of Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny again .

 

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore (1948)

Have you every been in any of these situations?

  • You have been upset by something of yours being damaged or lost, and the person responsible makes you feel you are overreacting because it was ‘only a thing’?
  • It’s late, you really need to sleep, but people are making a noise and you know that if you say anything at all you will be cast as the dull person who is spoiling the party?
  • There is something you want to do that you know is fair and reasonable, but you are reluctant to act because you know that if you do it you will be made to feel that you were acting unfairly and selfishly?

Situations like that are  at the heart of this book, and they are brilliantly portrayed 

Late in the summer of 1945, Miss Elinor MacFarren was living alone in her family home. She was middle aged – on the cusp of elderly – and she was content with her life. She followed in a family tradition of writing about botany, and she was respected in that field; and had a fine collection of botanical prints and antiques. It was because her finances were just a little stretched that she decided that it would be a good idea to rent out part of the house.

Mrs Antonia Bankes presented herself as the perfect tenant. She expressed warm admiration for the house and for Miss MacFarren’s lovely things and promised to love and care for them as she did; she said that, as the wife of an American with the occupation forces in Europe, she would be bringing little with her; and she professed a love of quiet domestic pursuits and housework. 

It seemed too good to be true – and it was!

Miss MacFarren found her hall full of packing cases a day before Mrs Bankes was due to move in; the next day a merry band of ladies came to help Mrs Bankes move in, and took over the ‘shared’ spare room; not long after that, before Miss MacFarren began to spot damages ….

Nothing in the landlady’s experience had equipped her to deal with such a tenant!

Mrs Bankes presented herself as being quite helpless, she was utterly charming, and she made promises that rang with sincerity. 

Miss MacFarren was confounded and exasperated!

The story follows her as she first tries to cope with the situation, then she tries to take control of the situation and finally tries to evict her nightmare tenant. It sounds simple – and it is and it isn’t – because the story is so cleverly plotted, because actions often had unexpected consequences, and because she learned a lot and changed somewhat as the result of her experiences.

As her antique dealer friend, Harriet, who had introduced Mrs Bankes when she though her one of her best customer and later learned that she was one of her worst, said:

“If you used to have one fault one tiny fault, my dear, it was that you were becoming – no let me say you were in danger of becoming smug. This Bankes situation has been a great ordeal, but its done you all the good in the world. It’s humanized you. It’s broadened your mind. You’re a far more adaptable woman the you were this time last year.”

The story is filled out by a fine and diverse supporting cast, including Mrs Manders, the daily help, who was charmed into doing a great deal of work for Mrs Bankes, until she buckled under the load; Dr Wilmot, who Miss MacFarren had thought of as a rival in her field but who became a good friend and co-conspirator; Mr Bankes, who won over Miss MacFarren with his wry acknowledgement of his wife’s ‘weaknesses’ and his genuine interest in her field; and Miss Maxine Albert, a friend of Miss MacFarren’s nephew who she took time to warm too but who would become her most valuable co-conspirator. 

Doris Langley Moore  wrote very well, she told an engaging, distinctive and unpredictable tale, but I have to address one concern.

A fox terrier appeared in the story, and the dog came to an unhappy end. It was signposted and it wasn’t gratuitously described, my problem was that  hardly anyone cared and those that did care weren’t as upset as that should have been.

That fixed my opinions of certain characters more that they should have been fixed, and it made me feel the lack of an emotional side to the story.

But Miss MacFarren was an unexpectedly wonderful heroine, and I was with her every step of the way.

The Key by Patricia Wentworth (1945)

In a small English town, a man stands waiting for the lights to change so that he can cross the street and catch his train home. He spots a tea room and, though he knows he will miss his train, he is tired and thirsty and so he goes in search of refreshment.

As he steps through the doorway he is dazzled by a bright light. A man passes him and he is sure that he has seen a ghost from his past. He turns on his heel, all thoughts of tea forgotten, but the man – the ghost – is nowhere to be seen.

He walks to the station, catches a later train and makes his way home.

The man who he saw recognised him, and that would have dreadful consequences.

The opening scene of this eighth Miss Silver novel is a lovely, suspenseful piece of writing, quite unlike anything I have found in any of Patricia Wentworth’s books before.

Michael Harsh died that night.

The inquest concluded that he had died by his own hand. Because he had lost his daughter and his wife, and because his work on the development of a new explosive was complete. A gun was found by his side at the church organ that he often played, the church was locked, and a church key was found in Michael’s pocket.

Sir George Rendel of the War Office disagrees with the verdict, because he knew the man, because he knew how hard he had been working, and because he died the day before he was to hand over his results. He had a young man in his department who had relations living in the the same village, and so he sent him down to make discreet enquiries.

It was soon established that Michael Harsh had been murdered, and that his murderer probably lived in the village. DCI Lamb and DS Abbott were assigned to the investigation and they made a swift arrest. Friends and neighbours were certain that they had the wrong man, one of them was acquainted with Miss Silver, and so she was invited to make discreet enquiries while she was the house guest of an ‘old friend’ ….

The plot that follows is both intriguing and entertaining, and it has it is enhanced by an interesting cast of characters. This is a wonderfully human drama – the possibility of a locked room mystery is dismissed early on and the espionage angle is understated – and that is good thing because that is what Patricia Wentworth did particularly well, and I am not sure that she would have been as good at those other things.

It was lovely to see Miss Silver doing what she does best – talking to people quite naturally and drawing things out of them that they might not have thought were significant, or that they might not have wanted to mention to the police – and the village setting was a nice change. I was also glad to see that she, the police and the other investigators work very well together – for though she might use her position as an elderly lady to her advantage she was never less than professional. And, of course, she knew that giving the police all of the credit and keeping her name out of the papers was the best thing she could do for her future career.

There is a romance in every book and the one in this book was nicely done, but a more complex relationship between two older characters, brought to light by the investigation and beautifully handled by Miss Silver, was rather more interesting.

The war time setting is nicely evoked, the tone is exactly right, and all of the things that regular readers might expect to find are present and correct.

I couldn’t work out who the murderer was for much of the book, but I did settle on the right person well before the end. That wasn’t a problem, because I read the Miss Silver books to watch her at work and to watch the different stories play out, not just to solve the puzzle.

(Ideally, every mystery I read would have an intriguing puzzle and engaging characters, but of a story has to be tilted one way I would always want it tilted towards the characters.)

I found much to love in this book, but I did think that the setting up was stronger than the playing out, and Miss Silver was present at the denouement rather than being the driving force behind it.

That is why I have to say that this is a strong entry in the series – not the very best but more than good enough for me to be eager to start the next book.