Danger Point – or, In The Balance – by Patricia Wentworth (1941)

I realised that it was a long, long time since I had investigated a mystery with Miss Silver. The delay was partly because I was wonderfully distracted by lots of Patricia Wentworth’s other books being sent back out into the world; but it was also because after loving books one and two I was rather disappointed in book three. I reached the point when I realised that it was time to try book four, and I am so glad that I did. It’s my favourite Miss Silver book to date.

The story begins on a train, with Miss Silver travelling back to London after a seaside holiday. An attractive young woman – clearly in a state of shock – rushes into the compartment. Miss Silver is concerned and she very tactfully begins a conversation; her companion responds, thinking that Miss Silver is rather like her old governess.

Lisle Jerningham was a wealthy young woman with a brand new husband, and she was terribly afraid that he was going to kill her. She had just overheard  a conversation that suggested that husband’s first wife died of an accident, that that money she left him had saved his family home. Now he had run out of money again, he had acquired another wife with money, and maybe she would have an accident too …

12114131When the train reached London Miss Silver pressed one of her business cards into Lisle’s hand, and said that she should call if there was ever anything at all she might do to help.

Lisle felt terribly alone. She was American and she had no family or friends of her own in England. Her money was managed by a trustee and she knew that Dale, her husband, was unhappy that he wouldn’t produce the funds that he needed to save the family home. He said that if Lisle was only a little more persuasive he would have the money and everything would be alright, but that she really didn’t understand how important it was. She didn’t understand, but she had tried for her husband’s sake.

The only person who seemed to care about her was Dale’s cousin Rafe, but Rafe was charming to everyone and so she could never be sure that he really was her fiend. She knew that Dale’s other cousin, Alicia, whose rich, titled husband died in an accident at about the same time that Dale’s first wife hated her. Dale and Alicia had been expected to marry, and she wondered if maybe they would when they had the money to secure the future of the family home that they both loved.

Lisle had already had one accident – she had nearly drowned – and she would have others.

A young woman was found head at the foot of a cliff, and a young man was charged with her murder. It seemed to be an open-and-shut case, but Lisle feared that it wasn’t.

A newspaper report about the trial caught Miss Silver’s eye, she realised that it was very close to the young woman she had met on the train, and she decided that she had to investigate. She knew the local policeman from her days as a teacher – he had been one of her pupils – and so she asked him to recommend a local boarding house, and she told him a little of what Lisle had told her.

It was lucky that she did, because Lisle really was in terrible danger.

I found a great deal to like in this book.

Lisle was more damsel in distress than heroine, but I understood the difficulty of the position she found herself in; with nobody outside the family circle to turn to, and not know who inside the family circle she might trust. I appreciated that she was young and inexperienced, that she coped with a great deal and that she found some courage when she most needed it.

I was inclined to like her, and I found it easy to understand why she thought and acted as she did.

I loved the echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ in Lisle’s situation; and the echoes of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in Miss Silver’s relationship with ‘her’ policeman.

The details of characters, clothes and settings were so well drawn, as they always are in Patricia Wentworth’s books, making this a lovely period piece.

I continue to be impressed with Miss Silver’s knitting speed and prowess, and in this book I learned that she can crochet too!

The dialogues between Lisle and Dale as he tried to make her understand why his family home was so important, and she stood her ground because she knew there were other things that mattered more, were wonderfully well done.

The playing out of the story was so dramatic – a lovely mixture of the sensation novel and the golden age crime novel – and I was on the edge of my seat until the very end of the story.

The ending that she chose made me realise that Patricia Wentworth had understood the psychology of her subject matter perfectly.

The is definitely Miss Silver’s best case to date – though she wasn’t at the centre of the story she did have an important role to play – and it won’t be too long until I move on to the next one.

Silence in Court by Patricia Wentworth (1945)

I hadn’t investigated a mystery with Miss Silver for ages, I was thinking that it was time I did, but I was wonderfully distracted when I learned that lots of her other books were being sent back out into the world.

More mysteries! I had to investigate!

An excellent introduction told me a little more about Patricia Wentworth, and it told me that she wrote standalone mysteries, that some of them had recurring characters, and that one or two of those characters appeared in Miss Silver stories too.

I was intrigued.

This story stands alone, and it is set in London, in the later years of the war.

“She was so rigidly controlled as she came into the dock that she wasn’t Carey Silence any more, or a girl, or young, but just a will to walk straight and seemly, to hold a proud head high, to bar sight and hearing against all these people who had come to see her tried for her life. There was a moment when the grip she had on herself wavered giddily ….”

Carey Silence was entering the dock on the first day of her trial for the murder of Honoria Maquisten, her grandmother’s cousin and dearest friend. She was scared, she knew the case against her was compelling, and she really didn’t understand how that could be.

Her fear was palpable.

I was drawn in and I was made to care straight away; because Patricia Wentworth was such a good storyteller and so good at creating engaging, likeable and believable characters.

After a first chapter in court the story went back in time, to explain how Carey came to be there.

She had gone to stay with Honoria when she left hospital, after being bombed and left jobless and homeless. They hadn’t met before, because Carey’s grandmother had died when she was very young and there had been family estrangements, but Honoria took to her newly discovered young relation straight away. It seemed that she was just like her grandmother!

Honaria was elderly and frail, but she was undoubtedly head of her household; she had always been – she would always be – formidable and flamboyant.

“What was the good of saying that Cousin Honoria was like the Queen of Sheba and leaving it at that? The Queen of Sheba didn’t wear a vermilion wig dressed about a foot high in several thousand curls.”

She had brought a number of younger relations into her home. There was her nephew Dennis, an RAF pilot who had been invalided out of the War. There was her niece Nora, who had a husband in the Far East and who was employed as the driver of a senior military man. There was another niece, Honor, who packed parcels for POWs and was much less welcoming to Carey than her two cousins. And there was another nephew, Robert, who didn’t live there but visited often.

30075219Honoria kept them all in her thrall, by calling her solicitor in on  regular basis so that she could revise her will ….

It was clear that Carey was a favourite, and that she would be gaining from the revisions.

One day a letter was delivered by hand, and when Honoria read it she was furious and she insisted that her solicitor be sent for immediately. He was away? Then his clerk must come instead! One of the beneficiaries of her will – she didn’t say who, she didn’t give anything away – was to be written out.

But before Honoria could sign that new will she was dead – from an overdose of her regular sleeping draft.

Carey was arrested, because she had fetched the sleeping draft and handed it to Honoria; because there were suggestions that she was going to be written out of the will, because Honoria had discovered more about her new-found relation; and because witness statements – from a long-serving maid and a terribly professional nurse – suggested that she was the only person who had the chance to doctor the sleeping draft.

She had been welcomed into the family, but now she was cast out.

Luckily Carey had one person on her side. Jeff, her American beau, had been away on business but he came back to London as soon as he head what had happened, he made sure that she had a excellent barrister, and he made sure that everything that could be done to find out the truth of the matter was done.

Carey had often found him infuriating, but he proved his worth. Though maybe she was too distracted to appreciate that ….

The second half of the book told the same story as the first half; but as a courtroom drama. It could have been repetitive, but I loved seeing the different characters take the stand to give their own accounts, and going over events again gave me a wonderful opportunity to try to work out what had happened.

I wondered for a while if Carey was unreliable – after all, even murderers can be afraid – but I ruled that out quite quickly. That wasn’t Patricia Wentworth’s way, and Carey was far too likeable. I wondered if a certain character was being particularly duplicitous, but I ruled that out too because of his reactions to certain things. And because the real solution was quite obvious.

This wasn’t the most mysterious – or the most complicated – of mysteries, but the plot was well thought out. There were a few little contrivances, but nothing unreasonable. I read a lovely period piece, an engaging human drama, and a wonderfully readable book.

I saw echoes of other books, but the story as a whole was distinctive – and distinctively Patricia Wentworth.

The characters were very well done, the period setting was just as good, and I think the details of clothes and the like were done as well as Patricia Wentworth always does them, but I was too dazzled by Honoria’s flamboyant style and fabulous collection jewels to take as much notice of other, similar things as I might.

I can say definitively that there was no knitting and nobody went anywhere near the edge of a cliff; that is clearly Miss Silver’s domain. She could have stepped into this book, she and Carey would have got on so well, but the story didn’t need her and I didn’t miss her too much.

But I am looking forward to meeting her again.

I have lots more Miss Silver books to read, and now I have a stack of Patricia Wentworth’s other books to investigate.