Like many other prolific mystery novelists, Patricia Wentworth began her professional career writing in another genre, historical fiction. Unlike her peers, however, she earned a solid reputation as such a writer, with her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror (1910), appearing in ten editions and winning a literary prize. She wrote five more , which were published annually through 1915. Although technically unremarkable, these early volumes helped her develop style, plotting technique, and the extensive use of detail in characterization.
When Wentworth began writing mysteries in 1923, she was a polished writer already showing the traits that would become the hallmarks of her entire body of work. In her first novel of detection, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, while using generic mystery plot elements, she conjured up considerable suspense and intrigue. In many of her books, the typical English settings of pastoral country village or urban London gain deadly and suspenseful qualities with the emphasis on secret passageways and gangs of disguised criminals who have mysterious though entirely mortal power. Such plot elements are saved from becoming silly and absurd throughout her work because of the suspense they consistently generate.
Wentworth’s settings offer the orderly, romanticized views of England that the reader of English mystery novels has come to expect. The small English village, made most famous by Christie, contains within itself all the plot and character requirements. The village green is surrounded by a few small cottages with their requisite gardens, fewer still larger homes built in the Georgian style and filled with unpretentious furniture that, though worn, is very good indeed, a group of small shops containing collections of innocuous items for sale, and the necessary official places, a vicarage and a solicitor’s office. Such exaggerated peace in the setting is stressed to create a strong contrast to the strange and nearly diabolical evil that enters and temporarily cankers the village. It is also the peace to which the village returns after Miss Silver has excised the evil. Thus, Wentworth uses setting in a traditional mystery fashion.
On the surface, too, Wentworth’s characters resemble those of Christie. First among them is Maud Silver herself, an elderly female whose powers of knitting and detection seem unbounded. Often compared to Jane Marple, she is only superficially similar. Interestingly, Miss Silver’s appearance in Grey Mask predates that of Miss Marple in Murder in the Vicarage (1930) by two years. Wentworth’s creation of Miss Silver is highly detailed, perhaps more than that of any other detective hero. These details function to make her comfortably familiar to the reader and often stunningly unpredictable to her foes. Nearly everything about her is misleadingly soft, pastel, and chintz, from her light blue dressing gown and pale smooth skin to her little fur tie and ribbon-and-flower-bedecked hat. She is not a fussy elderly lady, however, and, it is important to note, not an amateur. With her detective agency she has established a professional reputation, and her skills are acknowledged both financially and socially.
Other characters in the books, particularly the dozens of damsels in distress, may be fit into categories. This placement must be made with caution, however, to avoid the mistaken conclusion that they are similar, interchangeable, or two-dimensional. The damsels’ behavior is a result of more than beauty and virtue; each has her own consistent weaknesses and idiosyncrasies that are not extraneous but instead primary sources for the movement of the plot. The characters who reappear from book to book are also endowed with their own traits, but they gain their entertainment value from the pleasant familiarity the reader soon establishes with them. A newly introduced character may suddenly realize that he or she knows one of Miss Silver’s longtime favorites, a niece or a student perhaps, and the requisite order of social class, inherent in the world of the English detective story, is underscored.
Such order is clearly...
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