Patricia Wentworth’s first Miss Silver mystery doesn’t have nearly as much to do with Miss Silver as I’d have liked. The mystery is a nicely-tangled (if slightly loosely-plotted) Golden Age affair of blackmail, mistaken identity, frivolous flappers, a plump inheritance, at least four attempted murders, star-crossed romance, and an evil villain in disguise. It is wonderfully pleasant to read. But among all the schemes that get us to the satisfying conclusion, among all the sparkling, fizzy characters, there’s a quietly-knitting private detective — and I could have done with a bit more of her.
The book begins with Charles. Charles has just returned from a tempestuous trip around the world, trying to forget Margaret, the girl who jilted him on the very eve of their wedding. Fortunately (or, I suppose, unfortunately), when he returns to his home, he finds it not as empty as it should be: there are, improbably, a group of masked conspirators there, plotting to kill an heiress if a certificate should appear to verify her claim to the money. Why does Charles not spring out among them, crying, “Not cricket!” (This is that sort of book.) Why doesn’t he rush to the police? I will let you find out those shocking details.
What does Charles opt to do? Well, among other things, he gets the address of a certain Miss Silver, a retired governess in whom people are apt to confide. He doesn’t trust her at first (of course not — who would — a mere woman), but she soon proves not only to have powers of observation far beyond the usual, but connections in the criminal world and a piercing comprehension of human behavior that go oddly with her tea and woolly knitting. Despite Charles’s inability to trust Miss Silver with all the details of the case, she is there at the finish, gentle and indefatigable and not the least bit woolly. She reminded me a bitof Dorothy Sayers’s Katherine Climpson. What a pair they would make! In general, though, the style of this book was not a bit like Sayers, or like Christie either (as the inevitable comparison with Miss Marple would imply.) It was much less a character study than the former, and much less a jigsaw-puzzle than the latter.
I found this mystery completely enjoyable, even if it did have a few holes in the plot and even if it wasn’t quite silvery enough for me. I look forward to reading more of these books, in the firm hope of seeing more of the detective.