Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

The opening of this book – number 6 of the 32 recorded cases of  Miss Maude Silver – is a lovely example of the things that Patricia Wentworth does best.

It is night-time in London, in the early years of the war, and Meade Underwood is wide awake. The cause was a vivid dream of the young man she had fallen in love with after a whirlwind romance calling her, the young man who had been lost at sea just after they had begun to make plans for their future together. Trying to steady herself she began to count the residents of the house where she was staying with her aunt. It was a very old house that had proved impractical and expensive to run in the middle of the twentieth century, and so it had been converted into flats.

Meade was a classic Wentworth heroine, her situation was beautifully drawn, and I found that I was concerned for her and very interested to see how her story would play out. The residents of the house were nicely diverse, I saw a good deal of story potential, and I remembered how very good Patricia Wentworth was at populating her stories with engaging and believable characters. The setting was interesting, and nicely different from the settings of earlier mysteries.

Miss Silver IntervenesMy hopes of a crime story without the usual romance were quickly dashed. Meade was to learn that her young man had survived but that his journey home had been a long one, as he had suffered a serious head injury and lost much of his memory of the few months before. He didn’t remember Meade, but he was drawn to her and pleased that she knew him and was more than ready to help with his recovery.

There was just one complication – and it was pertinent to the crime story. The young lady who occupied a top floor flat in Meade’s house appeared to have a claim on her young man. He couldn’t believe it, she wasn’t the type of girl he would have been involved with, but she seemed to have compelling evidence to support her claim.

I was drawn into that story, but it wasn’t the main event.

Meade didn’t know that her aunt was being blackmailed, or that when she had seen something that made her suspect that her blackmailer was one of her neighbours she had gone to consult a lady detective she had met at a dinner party – Miss Maud Silver.

Miss Silver’s investigation was at a very early stage when she learned that one of the neighbours her client had spoken about had been murdered. She suspected that the blackmail and the murder would be linked, and so she suggested that she became her client’s house guest. That allowed her to meet all of the residents, and she found that there was a lot going on in the different flats.

A married couple was under a great deal of strain. A young woman so wanted to break away from her domineering mother. A young man was keeping a great deal under his hat. An elderly lady who lived along was behaving rather oddly ….

Each of their stories caught my interest.

The human drama was wonderful and the mystery was intriguing. There were many suspects but no obvious solution.

It was lovely to see Miss Silver drawing information out of different people she met. She did particularly well with the cleaning lady, and the set-up of this particular story made me see how effectively she had transferred the skills of her previous career – as a governess – to her new career.

I was pleased to find that the murder case was being investigated by Inspector Lamb and Frank Abbott. The former appears in a few mystery stories of his own that I have yet to read, and I know that the latter reappears in many of Miss Silver’s cases. I was pleased to note that he was able to recall the words of Miss Silver’s beloved Tennyson at exactly the right moment, and I loved the relationship between Miss Silver and the police detectives. They treated each other as professionals who could bring different things to the investigation. The residents told Miss Silver things they would never have told a policewoman ….

The story was entertaining and engaging, there was always something going on, but I have to say that this is not Miss Silver’s finest hour or one of Patricia Wentworth’s best books.

It doesn’t play fair – particularly when Miss Silver goes off on a jaunt and nothing abut it is explained to the reader – and there are a couple of elements of the story that are rather too improbable.

So this is a book to be enjoyed, rather than a book to be analysed.

Now that I’ve finished it I am very curious to learn more about Miss Silver’s next case ….

The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

This story  begins – as do many of the stories from Miss Silver’s casebook – with a young woman who is not quite as secure, not quite as sure of her position, as she would like to be.

Laura Fane was an orphan who would be coming into a significant inheritence on her 21st birthday, and as that day was drawing near she had to travelled to London, to visit the family solicitor.

I loved Laura from the start. She had grown up in a quiet country home but she loved the ‘bubbles’ and ‘glitter’ of London that she discovered with her cousins and their friends. She had the confidence to make her own decisions and express her feelings and opinions, and she had the grace to want others to understand and be happy.

Laura knew that coming into her inheritance  would force her to deal with a tricky family situation.

Her father had jilted a cousin to marry her mother after a whirlwind romance. The jilted woman had never married, and she continued to live in the family’s country house that Laura owed but had never seen. She was wealthy and wanted to buy the house so that she could leave it to the orphaned niece she had raised; but Laura wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to sell the home that was one of the few links she had with her parents, sight unseen!

Tanis Grey, that orphaned niece was the dark to Laura’s light. She was a young, charming and utterly irrestible femme fatale. I found her a little less convincing as a character than Laura, and I couldn’t quite believe that she wreeked the havoc that she did, but I understood the kind of woman she was very well.

When she was invited to a house party at her own country home, Laura had mixed emotions. She wanted to see the house but she wasn’t at all sure that she wanted her first visit to be in a party at somebody else’s invitation; and she knew that it would uncomfortable that her hostess would want an answer to a question that she would be either unready or unable to give.

Laura did go to the party, she fell in love with the house, and she found herself at the centre of a murder mystery when the Chinese shawl that she had inherited from her mother was used to silence a gun. She was the prime suspect, and she was horribly aware that she might have been the intended victim.

The story  twisted and turned beautifully, and I was completely caught up in it alongside Laura. Even though I knew that Patricia Wentworth always looks after her heroines, there was a real sense of jeopardy because she is so good at holding her reader in the moment.

She is also very good at clothes, and she was able to use that talent to the full in this book. Houses and furnishings were just as well done and I know that I would recognise Laura’s family home and all of the party guests if I was taken there.

Miss Silver was one of those guests, invited because she was an old friend of one of the older members of the family. She wasn’t asked to investigate the mystery, but of course she was concerned, she asked questions, she watched carefully, and she was ready to do whatever she could to help.

She identified the murderer and so did I; but she the evidence led her to her conclusion whereas instinct and my knowledge of Miss Silver’s earlier cases led me to mine. That didn’t matter, because I don’t read Patricia Wentworth’s books for clever plotting and surprising outcomes, I read them to be caught up in a mystery alongside a lovely heroine.

I enjoyed the inevitable romance in this book, and I particularly loved the dash of the gothic in this one.

The psychology underpinning this story isn’t as interesting as it was in the previous Miss Silver book, but it is interesting; and there was more than enough that was right about this book – and not much at all that was wrong – allowing me to say that it is among my favourites to date and that I am eager to read more.

Celia’s House by D E Stevenson (1943)

I hoped – in fact I expected that I would fall in love with ‘Celia’s House’.

It promised things that I love, and things that I know D E Stevenson is very, very good at:

  • A Scottish setting
  • A big house
  • The history of a family.

I did fall in love with the story as it began, but sadly I fell out of love again before very long. I found things to love, I found moments to love, but it wasn’t the same. Because the spell had been broken.

Let me explain.

The story opens early in the twentieth century. Celia Dunne had lived at Dunnian for every one of her ninety years. She knew that the end of her life was very near, and that she would have to leave her beloved home. She knew that there always been Dunnes at Dunnian, and she was going to do everything she could to make sure that there always would be.

She summoned Humphrey, her great-nephew, who she knew was home on leave from the Navy. She saw that he loved the house too, and that he understood how wonderful it would be to raise his children there; and so she told him that she was going to disinherit the nephew she knew had plans to redevelop her property as soon as he got his hands on it, and leave it to Humphrey instead. In trust for his daughter Celia.

25643863Humphrey is thrilled, but he is also somewhat confused. He doesn’t have a daughter named Celia. The elderly Celia assure him that he will, and indeed he does.

It isn’t long before Celia dies, the nephew who thought the house would be his is sent packing, and Humphrey; his rather delicate wife, Alice; and their three small children, Mark, Edith and Joyce, move to Dunnian. It becomes a family home; two more children, Billy and Celia, are born; Humphrey and Alice take in a seven-year old cousin, Debbie, when her mother remarries and follows her husband to India.

This part of the story was lovely. The house and family life is so very well evoked. It was lovely to meet the family retainers, who loved Dunnian too, and to see them ease the family’s transition into a new life that was so lovely, but quite different from what they were used to.

Sadly, the story lost its way when the children grew up. Their lives became tangled with the lives of a family at a bigger, grander, neighbouring house. It turned into a reworking of ‘Mansfield Park’, with Mark, who was studying medicine cast as Edmund Bertram and his cousin Debbie cast as Fanny Price. If only it had been a little more than a retelling, if only more that a few of the character had been given the depth they needed, and if only it hadn’t gone on for quite so long, it could have been lovely. But it wasn’t, and I was relieved when it was over.

There had been some lovely touches along the way. The author used the world’s expectation that Mark, as the eldest son, would inherit, and the reality that he wouldn’t very cleverly. I appreciated her understanding of Humphrey’s feelings -as a father, as a widower and as a military man – when war came, his sons were called up, and he realised that there was very little he could contribute.

I couldn’t help thinking that if D E Stevenson had understood all of her characters as well this would have been a better, more even, book.

It was only at the end that Celia, the heir to Dunnian, emerged from the shadows to learn her destiny and to bring the story to a lovely ending, that had its roots in its very beginning.

It’s maddening that, though D E Stevenson does many things so very well, she sometimes goes terribly wrong.

I’ve read more of her books that have gone right than have gone wrong, and so I’m going to keep picking my way through them.

I just need to tread carefully …

Thus Far and No Further – or Rungli-Rungliot – by Rumer Godden (1943)

When I ordered this book from the library I knew next to nothing about it. When I finished A Fugue in Time, I scanned the catalogue for titles that I didn’t have and I picked it out from the titles that I knew weren’t in print; because there was a note that said it was Rumer Godden’s first work of non-fiction; as I hadn’t read any of her non-fiction at that stage the book picked itself.

The volume that arrived was small and sturdy, and covered by an ugly plastic dust jacket, but when I opened it I was smitten by the author’s note:

“There are only a few things in these notes:

Chinglam and its hills and valleys
Work
Flowers
Children
Animals
Servants

There is nothing else because there was nothing else.”

In 1940, when her husband joined the army, Rumer Godden and her two young daughters settled in a rented house in Kashmir; set between tea gardens on the Himalayan slopes below Darjeeling.

This is the journal that she wrote there.
19-1

The writing is every bit as lovely as you might expect as you might expect from Rumer Godden; it’s understated, it’s elegant, and it’s wonderfully evocative.

The pieces are short; and they paint such lovely pictures, of daily life and of the people and the world that surrounded the small family.

Here’s one:

“The apple man says he has his daughter with him and she would like to sell me some peas…. He says she is very shy. Presently, she comes out slowly from behind a tree. She has a basket of peas and tree tomatoes and the colour of the pods looks wonderfully fresh against the wallflower brown velvet of her robe. She has cream sleeves and a red sash and her hair is in a pigtail braided with scarlet nearly to her knees. She does not look up, she looks down, and her eyelids make two upturned crescent shapes on her cheeks and her skin is the blend of red and pink and brown of the skins of the tree tomatoes. As soon as she has shown her basket, she retires behind the tree again. I buy all she has.”

There are so many entries that I could pull out.

I particularly enjoyed watching the author’s small garden over the changing seasons, with juxtapositions of flowers that I would love to see:

“It is getting colder. Michaelmas daisies come out in the garden with the first sweet peas and cornflowers and poinsettias. In this mixture of English summer flowers and India, there is an authentic touch of autumn.”

I loved watching her dogs:

“Old Sol lies out on the drive in the sun. The colourings of his coat exactly match the autumn: the drying grass, the ripening millet, the deep colour of the marigolds and the yellow daisies growing in the crops.”

And I was charmed by her children:

“The children have made hobby-horses of the pampas canes. These have slim green stems, and their great feathery heads make excellent tails. Some are white, others are green bronze. They go galloping on them down the grass lanes that the paths make between the tea.”

As a whole the book really felt like an author’s journal; something that she had taken time and trouble over, not something that was contrived or significantly edited for publication. It felt as if she was writing something that she could read to stir memories of that part of her life, or maybe to spark ideas for novels she had still to write.

There were times when I felt that she was a little reserved, and there were times when I wished that she would describe just a little more. She passed over the lights of Diwali so very quickly ….

And so I have to say that it is a minor work.

But  it is very, very lovely …