The Clock Strikes Twelve, Patricia Wentworth
As I have confessed elsewhere, for many years now I have had Patricia Wentworth confused with Patricia Highsmith. It was Katrina of Pining for the West who set me straight, with posts about Wentworth's books. I am a big fan of mysteries from the Golden Age, and I don't know how I missed these. When I started looking for Wentworth's books, I discovered that she wrote over 60, with 32 featuring the detective Maud Silver. There is a handy list of all her books here. I chose a couple from the 1940s to start with, pretty much at random. This one, published in 1944, proved to be a perfect introduction to her books.
The Clock Strikes Twelve centers on a family, the Paradines. Their firm, the Paradine-Moffat Works, is involved in war work, and as the story opens, a crucial set of blueprints has gone missing. The head of the family and the firm, James Paradine, tells the designer that he knows who took them. "This is a family matter," he says, "and I propose to deal with it in my own way." When his extended family gathers that evening, for a New Year's Eve dinner, he announces that someone in the family has been disloyal, has betrayed
the family interests. As he know who it is, he is offering that
person a chance to confess privately and take the consequences. James tells the group that he will wait in his study
After that announcement, I was not in the least surprised when the New Year dawns and James's body is found lying below the terrace outside his room. The family wants to believe that he fell, but the police find evidence that he was pushed. After learning of his accusation, the police naturally focus on the family. One of the family, learning that Maud Silver is staying with relatives in the town, asks her help with the investigation. As usual I spent most of the book suspecting the wrong people, so I was in the dark until the end. I thought the solution was very clever and well-plotted, with a couple of twists that took me by surprise. I enjoyed the family drama as well, which reminded me of some of Georgette Heyer's mysteries.
I couldn't help comparing Miss Silver with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, another amateur detective who assists the police in investigating crimes. Both are single women, not bright young things. I don't remember whether we learn much about Miss Marple's background (the recent TV series with Geraldine McEwan added some non-canonical details). Miss Silver is described as a "gentlewoman," a former governess, with an Edwardian air about her. There is no mention of a fee, but she seems more of a professional than Miss Marple. She has built up quite a reputation as a detective, both with the police and the general public. Her cases seem to come by referral, with those she has helped in the past recommending her to those who might need her services. She is quiet but confident. She doesn't dither, though her constant coughs for attention reminded me irresistibly of Dolores Umbridge and her "Hem! Hem!" Miss Silver's strengths seem to be in her listening and her attention to details. She can deal easily with servants and their employers, and her background as a governess comes in handy in getting people to talk. At least in this book she doesn't gather everyone together for a dramatic revelation of The Murderer, but she works with the police to solve the case.
Reading this also made me consider how few of the Golden Age mysteries that I have read feature women detectives, Miss Marple aside. Miss Climpson, a favorite of mine, assists Lord Peter Wimsey, but as his employee, under his direction. Harriet Vane initially takes the lead in Gaudy Night, but it's left to Peter to solve the case. In Margery Allingham's books, Amanda is on the periphery of some of Albert Campion's cases, but aside from Fear Sign (aka Sweet Danger) I don't remember her taking an active role. Heyer's mysteries generally involve Scotland Yard, not private detectives. Josephine Tey has Miss Pym, but that's a private investigation and a one-off book - and then Miss Pym gets everything completely wrong. With Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Troy is sometimes involved in the cases of her husband Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, but as I remember he like Peter Wimsey takes the lead and solves the case in the end. I haven't read enough about detective fiction to know when this began to change, or whether I am missing other female detectives, particularly from the Golden Age. My favorite modern series have women detectives as the central characters, including Deborah Crombie, Rhys Bowen, Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Maron and Laurie R. King. Recommendations for earlier books are always welcome! In the meantime, I will be collecting more of Patricia Wentworth's books - and probably filling a few more years in my Mid-Century of Books.