Friday, May 13, 2016
Friday Forgotten Book: GREY MASK (1928) by Patricia Wentworth - The first Miss Silver mystery.
(Incidentally - I have, since writing this review, learned that almost all of Patricia Wentworth's books are available for free reading in ebook form, at this link, fadedpage.com. The copyrights have mostly expired in Canada.)
The Miss Silver mysteries by the prolific author, Patricia Wentworth are, without doubt, a mixed bag. The series lasted for many years, beginning in 1928 and lasting through until the last Miss Silver published in 1961, the year of Miss Wentworth's death. I remember reading and enjoying quite a few of the books and then for whatever reason I got bogged down in a slew of bad ones and gave up on Wentworth. (Sometimes that happens over the span of a long series.)
But now, yearning lately for cozy vintage reads, I'm returning and attempting to navigate through the Miss Silvers as best I can since they are suddenly available on Kindle and in hard copy form from Abe Books and even occasionally over at Project Gutenberg Canada, where several of the copyrights have expired. AND I've just discovered that a bunch of 'em are available in ebook format from my local N.C. library. (More than was available in N.J. - go figure.)
Miss Silver is often compared to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. But in my view the only thing the two women have in common is that they are, indeed, two women who solve mysteries. Oh, and they like to knit. But that's about it. In my view, Miss Marple never once worked for a living where Miss Silver is a retired school teacher turned private eye. Christie is the better writer and plotter and her Miss Marple is a more memorable character, though both made their debuts in print around the same time. (Miss Marple in 1927 in a short story, THE TUESDAY NIGHT CLUB and Miss Silver in 1928 in GREY MASK, today's book for review.)
Going in, I'll say that I enjoyed this thoroughly archaic but always entertaining first Miss Silver mystery. Yes, there are anachronisms galore, but for some reason they just add to the enjoyment. I mean, the head criminal honcho goes about in a grey mas (I'm spelling it in the Brit way) and nobody knows who he is. You gotta' love this sort of thing and I do - when it catches me up from the beginning and makes me smile in recognition, as if the writer and I were sharing a joke. Even if I know that's not possible since when this book was written, men in masks were not to be sneered at. But still, that's how I approach it.
Though in this book the detective and her detection remain mostly in the background (not something I usually like), it remains a particularly good debut mystery and has plenty of what I turn to vintage cozy mysteries for. The atmosphere makes up for a lot here. In execution, the writing style reminded me a bit of Philip MacDonald's early work.
However, as a character, Miss Silver is not an especially agreeable or personable one and rarely if ever, comes to resemble a real person. She remains, far as I'm concerned, a clever fairy godmother type with omniscient powers and a very irritating cough, who shows up intermittently in the plot and in the end comes forward wisely to solve the mystery. And yet, somehow, the author makes this work most of the time. Maud Silver's main talent as I see it, is that she is the sort of person to whom people can't help spilling their guts. Couple this with a knack for planning and thinking ahead and you have a fairly decent detective. Yet it does still seem a bit odd that people actually step forward to hire a little old lady (not that old in the beginning, I'm thinking) to solve a crime.
With Jane Marple, there was no hiring to be done except, perhaps, in NEMESIS - in which Miss Marple is 'hired' from beyond the grave by a dead multi-millionaire and his strange bequest.
But Maud Silver is different, she actually has a private detection business - once you overlook that incongruity, the rest of it either falls into place for you or it doesn't. Suspension of disbelief is the order of the day.
Okay, now on to GREY MASK, the plot:
Charles Moray is an embittered young man who returns to England four years after being jilted by Margaret Langton, a woman he still loves. He has come to claim an inheritance - the house he grew up in - and while staying at a London hotel, can't resist going (in the dead of night) to reconnoitre the old family home.
While lurking about the darkened estate, Moray overhears a conversation which makes him suspect that the house is being used for some sort of criminal activity. He manages to get a glimpse of several men, one of whom is wearing - you guessed it - a grey mask. Not only that, but just as Charles makes up his mind to go for the police, who should enter the room but his lost lady love Margaret Langton, there to deliver some papers. Charles now comes away from the place, confused, angry and determined to save the woman he loves even if she is involved in a criminal enterprise.
The bad guys are after the money a ditzy young heiress may be about to inherit if she can prove her bonafides, her name is Margot Standing, (I know, Margot, Margaret, and yet another Margaret in the background - confusing) whose father left no will. Well, Margot runs away from the sinister forces gathering around her and lo and behold winds up staying with Margaret Langton who may or may not turn her over to Grey Mask. In the meantime, Margaret warns Charles to stay away and leave her to her cruel fate. But Charles is made of sterner stuff and he is determined to prove extenuating circumstances as he goes ahead and hires Miss Silver to find out the truth, break up a criminal gang and in the bargain, save Miss Langton from the hoosegow.
A terrific book if you can swallow the anachronisms and I did.
Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today.
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Glad this was fun - I've been a bit unlucky with my Wentworth reading I think so I did get rather put off - good to know where to go for a good one! Sounds a bi more Edgar Wallace than Agatha Christie this one! Thanks Yvette.ReplyDelete
Nothing like Agatha Christie, Sergio - sorry if I gave that impression. More like Philip MacDonald (I've never read any Edgar Wallace), at least this first one anyway. Try it. Fun to read.Delete
"a clever fairy godmother type with omniscient powers and a very irritating cough, who shows up intermittently in the plot and in the end comes forward wisely to solve the mystery"ReplyDelete
That's the best encapsulation of Ol' Maud I've ever read. It also matches exactly my opinion of her. What I found hard to swallow was the way policemen are impressed with her superhuman intuitive sills. Not only can they not explain how well she can guess at people's hidden motives they liken her to being a witch! What man think like that? Especially a cop! Ridiculous. More power to you for taking the plunge and diving into the Wentworth canon. If ever I return to Wentworth it'll be to read one of the books without Maud Silver.
Thanks for another smile inducing review, Yvette. I even burst out laughing a couple times. You're the best and you made my sunny, warm Friday (Spring in Chicago at last!) all the brighter.
Thanks, John. I love to be quoted. :) And you're welcome - glad I brightened your day. This one was, as I said, a fun read. I'll be trying a couple more but truth to tell, two others I've read recently haven't been nearly as good.Delete
But I'll stumble along.
I've not read this but will be keeping an eye out for them.ReplyDelete
Good idea. :)Delete
I can't remember if you've ever mentioned reading the Hildegarde Withers mysteries by Stuart Palmer. She is also a school teacher, who becomes an ex-teacher later on. I love these books and think you might, too.ReplyDelete
I've read several and would be happy to read more, but they are so hard to find. Have you seen the movies? I understand they are a lot of fun too. Those are difficult to find as well.Delete
It has been so long since I read a Miss Silver mystery. I have several in my stacks and I have got to get to them.ReplyDelete
Yes, it's not a series that instantly leaps to mind. But I've just discovered that my library has them so that's probably what I'll be reading for the next few weeks or at least as soon as I can get my new library card.Delete
I have read just one Wentworth, and it was one of her standalone novels, THE DOWER HOUSE MYSTERY, which I didn't particularly like at the time, and about which I now remember little. This was an insightful review, I know enough now to think I probably won't try a Miss Silver mystery, because I have so many other books beckoning.ReplyDelete
Well, at least now, you know what to avoid, Richard. :) I'm fond of these sorts of books when they're well done and I don't mind hunting around for a good Miss Silver. When they're good, they're worth my time. That much I do remember from having read them in the past.Delete
Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid, Yvette, but, as always, I enjoyed your review.ReplyDelete
Thanks for leaving a comment anyway, Mathew. I know it's hard to think what to day when it's obvious the book being reviewed is not to your liking. That happens to me now and then too.Delete
Yvette, the next time I spot Patricia Wentworth's books at exhibitions, as I usually do, I'm going to pick up a couple of them. Maud Silver sounds like a interesting lady.ReplyDelete
Well, I hope you do, Prashant. And I hope you'll get your hands on a good one or two. When they work, the Miss Silver books are a cozy way to spend some time.Delete
The Hildegarde Withers books are all on Kindle now and cheap. Highly recommend them. I find these books are best read in order they are written FWIW. Just finished Grey Mask - enjoyed the story and agree with comparison to Edgar Wallace as well as Buchan. I did not understand the ending though - why/how would Freddy have been arrested in flight?ReplyDelete
Anyways enjoyed your review -