I have to be careful, or I will find myself binging on Patricia Wentworth's books - perhaps alternating with Emily Kimbrough's (if I were only doing the 20th Century of Books, I could knock out of couple of decades with their books alone). I've read several of the Miss Silver mysteries now, and I've enjoyed each of them, though not all to the same degree. I think this is my favorite so far. It was a recommendation from vicki at bibliolathas, in a comment on a post about cats in books. Her words "there is a wonderfully funny Crazy Cat Lady" were enough to send me searching for a copy of this book, and I'm so glad they did!
This story, published in 1951, is set in the small village of Greenings. The residents there are pleasantly scandalized by the unexpected return of Edward Random, who has been missing for five years. His widowed stepmother Emmeline never gave up hope, but his uncle James did, making a will that left everything to his brother Arnold rather than his nephew. Now James is dead, Arnold has taken possession of the estate and the family home, the Hall, and he shows no signs of sharing the inheritance with his suddenly-resurrected nephew. Edward doesn't help matters by refusing to say where he has been for the past five years. Many in the village assume he was in prison for unspecified but obviously dark crimes. Edward's own father had nothing to leave his son or second wife. Emmeline lives in the estate's lodge, courtesy of James and now Arnold. She has filled it with cats and kittens, though "She would rather have been making believe that Edward's children were her own grandchildren . . ."
Two newcomers arrive in the village shortly after Edward's return. Susan Wayne, whose Aunt Lucy lived in the village for many years, has been hired to catalogue the library at the Hall. She met Edward on her previous visits and is very glad to see him home again. Clarice Dean, a nurse who cared for James Random in his last illness, is even gladder. She had contacted the local doctor to ask if there are any patients who might need her services, as she would like to return to the area. Dr Croft recommended her to Miss Ora Blake, who "enjoyed ill health, and her nurses never stayed." As soon as Clarice meets Edward again, she begins a blatant pursuit. She is distracted from that, however, when a man is found is found drowned in the watersplash outside the village. On a visit to London, she meets Maud Silver, whom she knows by reputation, in a tea shop and confides her uneasiness over the man's death. Later Miss Silver decides to pay a visit to an old friend's daughter, now the wife of the Vicar of Greenings.
I won't say anything more about the plot, to avoid spoilers, except to say that Patricia Wentworth led me down the garden path with this one. In the last of her books that I read, The Traveller Returns, Miss Silver had a rather passive role, consulting and advising. Here she takes a much more active role, and in fact she drives the denoeument of the mystery, over the objections of the police. I couldn't help thinking what a formidable team she and Miss Climpson would make. She also helps both Edward and his Uncle Arnold in moments of crisis, in part simply by listening to them and then giving them her advice. I've noticed throughout these books that people who ignore her advice usually come to regret it (if they survive to regret it).
The cats and kittens in this book are great fun, though they are never allowed to take over the story as they have Emmeline's house. She and Susan are both lovely characters.** I couldn't help envying Susan her job, working through a library of old books. Well-read herself, she can't resist dipping into some of them.
Susan spent a dusty morning finishing up the Victorian novelists. There seemed to be an incredible number of them. An entire set of Mrs. Henry Wood, including no less than three copies of the famous East Lynne. A notorious tear-jerker - but three copies! There were also sets of Charlotte M. Yonge, an author beloved by Susan's Aunt Lucy, and whose descriptions of vast Victorian families she herself had always found enthralling. There they were in their original editions, and obviously well-read. . . There was something tranquilizing about the ebb and flow of of these family histories, even when they dealt with such tragedies as this.
I need to find a copy of East Lynne! And I am glad that I have built up some credits at Paperback Swap, because Patricia Wentworth's books are hard to find around here. I came across a copy of Spotlight at Half Price Books, and when the clerk scanned it, she told me that the aged paperback was $60. Fortunately, she was able to correct the price by 95%. I've requested a copy of The Ivory Dagger, because that case is mentioned several times in this book.
**Possible mild spoiler: I can just picture how happy Emmeline will be with the ending of the story. I found it very satisfying myself.