Sunday, August 3, 2014

My introduction to Miss Silver

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 until midnight.

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.


  1. Not always easy to find but I did manage to read a couple for the Vintage Crime Challenge. it is hard not to compare Miss S with Miss M - it's probably the knitting!

    I've been reading crime this weekend too - P D James - excellent and I see she has two that feature a female detective - Cordelia Gray - which I might try.

  2. Wentworth manages to not make me cross at the number of coincidences she manages to get into a novel. There is something about the general charm of her pieces that makes me very forgiving. I recommend Lonesome Road and, esp. The Case of William Smith. And if someone can fictionalize Josephine Tey, why can't someone 'do' Miss Climpson? Though she was a bit religious, I seem to remember.

  3. Cat, I liked Cordelia. Apparently P.D. James stopped writing about her after the first two stories were done as TV series. She hated what they had done with the character, where the story had gone past the books. She felt like she couldn't write her anymore. I thought that was a shame.

    vicki, I am not interested in reading the Wimsey sequels, but Miss Climpson's cases could be fun. If the Sayers estate would allow it. I know she went to church in search of clue in Unnatural Death.

  4. I wanted to leap to Harriet's defense for Gaudy Night, but of course you are correct: Peter solves it. However, it's totally Harriet's book, and the reason she doesn't solve it is that she's dealing with a lot of her own issues at that time. And I don't know why I've wasted these words defending Harriet Vane when nobody was attacking her. I JUST LOVE HER SO MUCH. :p

    Also, it was not clear to me until just now that Patricia Wentworth and Patricia Highsmith were two separate people. I saw the title of the book and its author when I opened up this post in my feed reader, and I thought, oh blech, The Talented Mr. Ripley was not at all for me.

  5. Jenny, no disrespect to Harriet! dealing with her own issues was important! Peter Wimsey was my first real literary crush - lasting over 30 years now. I put off reading the Harriet books at first, because I didn't want him finding true love with someone else (I was young, what can I say). I'm glad I could clear up the two Patricias for someone else, after years of my own confusion.

  6. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the book Lisa. Gladys Mitchell started writing in 1929 and she had a female investigator called Mrs Bradley. There are a few even earlier ones but they've escaped me at the moment.

  7. Katrina, thank you for the introduction - though it is definitely increasing the TBR stacks! I will have a look for Gladys Mitchell as well.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!