Saturday, November 10, 2018

A book for Patricia Wentworth Day: The Blind Side

I was trying to decide what to read next when I realized that Patricia Wentworth's day was coming up on Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I have a couple of the Miss Silver books left, among the last published. But I chose this one instead, from 1939. The cover of my Dean Street Press edition labels it "An Ernest Lamb Mystery." Inspector Lamb of Scotland Yard features in many of the Miss Silver books, generally in need of her wisdom and insight to solve the case, no matter how much he resists. He is usually paired with Detective Sergent Frank Abbott, a former pupil of Miss Silver's who has no hesitation in asking for her help or following her direction. As Jane commented once, how can they solve crimes without her? As it turns out, in this book at least, while Scotland Yard investigates a crime, it's the other characters who actually solve it for them - so par for the course.

The story opens up on a Victorian note, with a large house in Chelsea (re-made into flats) and four generations of the Craddock family who give the house its name. I made a family tree to keep them straight, only to find one in the book itself, to clear up Inspector Lamb's confusion. The current owner of the house, Ross Craddock, is shown to be a villain from the start. He is in the process of evicting his elderly cousin Lucinda from her flat next to his, just weeks after her sister Maud's death. He is also pursuing a young cousin (and Lucy's niece), Mavis Grey, to Lucy's distress. Lucy is persuaded to go away on a cruise, to recover after caring for her sister, and yet another cousin, Lee Fenton, comes to stay in her flat. Still another cousin, Peter Renshaw, is staying in the late Maud's flat, on the other side of Ross's, to deal with her estate. Most of the other residents are off on holiday, but the house's porter Rush is in residence in the basement with his bed-ridden wife, and a Miss Bingham is at home in the flat above Maud's. The daily cleaner Mrs. Green also comes in and out, moaning about her bad turns and hinting that a bit of brandy is just the thing to set her up again.

One hot evening, Peter meets Ross and Mavis at a nightclub. Later that night, he hears a crash in Ross's flat and finds Mavis fleeing from him, her dress torn. She has clipped Ross over the head with a decanter to escape, leaving him covered in blood. Peter gallantly allows her to sleep in Maud's bed, while he takes the uncomfortable sofa. He wakes to find that she has slipped out, claiming it's to look for her bag. She is trying to distract him from the blood on her dress, which wasn't there before. Over in the night, Lee wakes up in Lucy's bed to find her feet and nightgown red with blood, and a trail of bloody footprints leading to Ross's door.She immediately washes away all traces of the blood that she can reach. But in the morning, when Ross's man arrives to find him dead, shot through the head, she realizes her prints lead right up to the body.

All of this takes place in the first 50 pages - quite an elaborate set-up for the murder. When Inspector Lamb and DS Abbott arrive, the various members of the family do everything they can to confuse the case by concealing evidence and making ambiguous statements. Peter is trying to protect Lee, who has confessed her bloody state to him, and Mavis is out for herself. It turns out that Miss Bingham was creeping around the house in the middle of the night, and she has important information for the police. And then Mrs. Green calls in to say that she too has something vital to tell. (In Patricia Wentworth's stories, a character who hints that she knows something is usually doomed to be murdered before she can Reveal All.)

This story is packed with red herrings and blind alleys. The Scotland Yard detectives are headed in completely the wrong direction (as usual) when Peter finds the crucial evidence to solve the crime. I had an inkling of who the murderer might be, but I couldn't figure out how it was carried out. Everything is explained in detail in a death-bed confession (one I found a bit unlikely in the circumstances). I did enjoy this book, and I have another of the "Ernest Lamb" books on the TBR stacks, Pursuit of a Parcel from 1942 (war-time espionage, according to the cover blurb). Frank Abbott was rather subdued in this one, perhaps missing Miss Silver.

When I first discovered Patricia Wentworth, her books were hard to find, at least in the U.S. Now many have been re-issued, both the Miss Silver and the stand-alone books. I'm so glad that her books are more easily available, and I hope that more people come to appreciate her classic Golden Age stories. Thanks to Jane for celebrating her! Now I'm off to see what other people have been reading.