A sad, sad, day six years ago, I finished reading everything Agatha Christie had published. Yes, even the Mary Westmacott weepies. Just as I resigned myself to hanging around her grave waiting for a miracle, I discovered Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries.
The Case of William Smith
It’s soon after WWII when we meet William Smith, second-in-command at Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar in London. Although William seems perfectly ordinary, down to his commonplace name, he suffers from amnesia. Life before 1942, when he woke up in a German hospital with a head wound, is a blank. William has, however, managed to pull it together. He carves quirky wooden animals for the toy shop, has scraped together the funds to buy a car, and is now in love with the new shop assistant, Katherine, who is beautiful and gentle and willing.
Then, an attempt is made on William’s life, and the only reason can be William’s missing past. Katherine decides to consult Miss Silver.
A retired governess turned private investigator, Miss Maud Silver is first a lady, at least by her own definition, and then a detective. More British than a Beefeater’s elevenses, Miss Silver dresses drably, believes in breeding and restraint and God and King and good old-fashioned classism. She is clever, oh, preternaturally so, to the extent some police friends believe she hides her broomstick in the hall closet.
Miss Silver is most often compared to Christie’s Miss Marple–both are elderly unmarried British women whose innocuous appearance helps them gather information when more flamboyant characters might fail. But unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver is a professional. And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling; Katherine, for instance, “feels the kind of panic which comes in dreams when you find yourself naked among the clothed.” Yes, Miss Silver could probably rotate a 3X3 matrix in her head while casting off stitches for a woolly jumper.
Tempering Miss Silver’s acuity is her sympathy for her clients. It’s a tad strained, reserved for those fulfilling Miss Silver’s ideas of morality and good behavior, but it’s there, and thank goodness for it, for I wouldn’t like these books as much otherwise.
Furthermore, while Miss Marple plays a lone hand, keeping everyone (including the reader) guessing till the end, Miss Silver works with her protagonists to solve the mystery, and we follow her thought process and actions through the story. Miss Marple’s modus operandi, in essence, is to draw a parallel with some village event—a murdered cabinet minister reminds her of the ne’er-do-well nephew of the fishmonger, and presto! she deduces the identity of the killer. Miss Silver relies on inductive reasoning; presented with a set of facts, she can isolate the possible outcomes with great precision. The suspense in a Wentworth isn’t as much to do with the crime already committed as with the one yet to take place–it’s important to find William Smith’s identity (and that of his would-be assassin) so as to prevent the next attempt on William’s life from succeeding. And to make sure William and Katherine live happily ever after. Every Miss Silver mystery has at its heart a romantic couple (not a romance necessarily). This couple must and will unite; under no circumstances will either party die or prove to be a villain, and if a crime was committed by either, it will have been in ignorance, and with no lasting ill-effects. (Such foreknowledge about the end has never diminished my enjoyment of the books–the romance triumphant is as much part of the series as Miss Silver’s velvet coatee, or the creepy brooch with the hair of her grandparents).
The chief issue I have with Wentworth is her all-too-evident dislike of ambitious women. Her heroines aren’t weak—most exhibit immense strength of character, toil without complaint, and show great loyalty to their loved ones—but they do not prize independence or success. A woman who deliberately plots to advance her social/financial position through marriage or professional achievement is considered a dangerous unsettling force in Wentworth’s universe, for her ambition usually twists her femininity into something unwholesome. While Miss Silver is indeed a professional, she is in it to serve Truth and Justice, and definitely not for the money, and you know she’s rather go hatless than advertise. Modern-day readers who are impatient with such biases may find Wentworth’s heroines hard to digest. And the heroes are of course all tall dominating providers, but you’ve guessed that by now.
Wentworth’s prose, while lacking the depth and beauty of say, a late Sayers, is unfussy and clean, and does the job satisfactorily. Her plots aren’t as ingenious as Christie at her peak, and are sometimes overburdened with tedious detail, but keep me turning the pages. I’ll stop the faint praise here to assert that the appeal of a Miss Silver mystery chiefly lies in Miss Silver. To watch that mind at work, to savor her critics’ reaction turn from scorn to fear, to smile over the small details of her physical appearance, to startle at and then appreciate her rare wit—these are the reasons I read these books over and over. Miss Silver is an institution, and somewhat to my own surprise, one I’ve grown fond of. And, if I might presume to guess, so might you.
Note: Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver mysteries, starting with Grey Mask (1928). There is very little information about her on the net; a rather threadbare account of her life may be found at Wikipedia.
This post is my contribution to The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.