The Dower House Mystery (1925), by Patricia Wentworth
WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. I will come quite close below to the solution but, frankly, it will have been fairly obvious to the modern reader anyway. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
Amabel Grey decides that she must do whatever it takes to get her daughter Daphne to vacation in Egypt with her wealthy boyfriend so that he has the chance to pop the question uninterrupted. In order to come up with the requisite £200, she takes advantage of some frankly preposterous circumstances and agrees to spend six months in a seemingly haunted Dower House. She’s being paid in order to demonstrate that all the people who left the house in the past few years, swearing it was haunted, are just a big coincidence, and so the owner stumps up precisely the fare to Egypt in advance, in cash. Quelle coincidence. But all that was just to get the ball rolling; Daphne disappears, never to be seen again in the novel except via letters from Egypt, and Amabel is left in possession of the Dower House and some increasingly complicated circumstances.
Mrs. Brown, the elderly and bedridden family nurse, comes as part of the house’s appurtenances, along with her moody daughter Jenny as her attendant: Mrs. Grey herself brings along the faithful and truculent Ellen to see to her needs (and those of her dachshund Marmaduke) and to provide light comedy. Amabel soon becomes involved — or re-involved — with her former suitor Julian Forsham and some local aristos, since the Dower House is of course a subsidiary building on the estate of the squire, Airedale breeder Mr. Bronson and his family. Amabel, being an elegant and nearly perfect lady in every respect, is immediately afforded the entree to the entirety of local society at its highest levels; Ellen turns out to be related by marriage to some of the locals as well, and thus the household becomes immediately entrenched. Amabel gives every prospect of wanting to rekindle her youthful amours with Julian Forsham, but she cannot leave the Dower House for six months without returning the £200, and she can’t afford it.
Spooky goings-on, of course, start slowly and build in intensity, as does the general air of creepiness among the supporting cast. Amabel must stick it out with a stiff upper lip. Luckily Julian appears to wish to rekindle their romance as well, and they investigate the spooky goings-on together. There’s an episode with a remarkably talented medium, the dachsie vanishes and reappears, and doors keep opening and shutting themselves. The astute — or perhaps even merely competent — reader will have isolated a remark about someone in the neighbourhood forging banknotes and combined it with a knowledge of the plot of any episode of Scooby-Doo to realize that something is Going On in the cellars of the Dower House. The chief villain arranges a murderous plot that has Amabel writing her own suicide note without knowing it, then vanishing. But the villain’s subordinate female associate betrays the villain and saves Amabel from death, in an exciting climax.
Julian and Amabel get to appreciate each others’ virtues gradually as the case unfolds, and in the final chapter after Julian has popped the question, Amabel learns that Daphne’s boyfriend has similarly come through. Ellen approves comedically and Amabel romantically, and there is a happy ending.
Why is this book worth your time?
I have to confess, there is likely to be only a limited market for this book. I enjoyed the hell out of this, and I earnestly recommend it if you like this sort of thing, but I am sure that this will not be to everyone’s taste.
Elsewhere I have talked about my fondness for the 32 volumes about the elderly governess/private investigator Miss Maud Silver, written by Patricia Wentworth between 1928 and 1961. I’m very familiar with all those books and have read them numerous times. However, over the years, the 33 volumes by Wentworth that were not Miss Silver mysteries have, by and large, escaped me. Only a handful were ever printed in paperback and, while I was grateful for the chance to appreciate them, I felt that they were really only suitable for Wentworth completists, as it were. (Oh, sorry, I did promise you “no more Mr. Nice Blogger,” didn’t I? The few I read were tedious and melodramatic, a deadly combination.) I had not felt compelled to seek out the expensive and scarce remainder until recently, when a large number of them became available as e-books. My appreciation for Wentworth’s plotting craftsmanship and clear-spoken writing skills has deepened over the years, and I thought I would pick up a couple of these and give them a try, to see if my potential enjoyment had deepened. It had indeed; I loved this book. Here’s why.
I mentioned in the blog post linked above that one of the pleasant parts about the Miss Silver narrative is the way in which every novel is linked to every other novel with repetitive elements. Miss Silver’s home furnishings, the excellent culinary skills of her faithful servant Hannah, and the details of her clothing and jewelry (there’s a black velvet coatee mentioned a number of times that led to my instruction in a whole new area of women’s clothing) are constantly mentioned, as are the progressively more complex lives of her nieces and the three daughters of Inspector Lamb of Scotland Yard.
Obviously that is pretty much entirely absent here, since Miss Silver wasn’t yet invented when this was written. But Wentworth’s instinct even back so far as this, her fifth book, was to begin to accrete characters and ideas into a backdrop that would continue from book to book. If you have a good close look at the illustration of the first edition’s jacket at the head of this post, you will note the back-cover blurb making quite a thing of this; as near as I can tell, two of the characters are from 1923’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith and the third is from a book I haven’t yet encountered. Their part in the narrative is minimal, and truthfully is rather wedged in, but … that’s the way Wentworth instinctively builds a series novel, and I found it fascinating.
The other thing that Wentworth does so well is on full display here, and that is the creation of a plot and characters that have a pleasant air of familiarity and yet are quite different. The author doesn’t have to go into great detail because she has the knack of creating one-note characters, and furnishing a room in the reader’s mind by focusing on a couple of well-chosen objects. You understand what the function of the character is; one unpleasant young woman is there pretty much entirely to be disliked by readers and for us to admire the forbearance of Amabel in dealing with her (because Amabel is clearly a lady to her fingertips).
It’s as though this novel was a rough draft or prefiguring of bits of quite a few of the Miss Silver novels. There’s a sturdy and doughty (servant class) housekeeper who is fiercely devoted to her female employer and who will do anything to protect her (this translates as, once per book she initiates a red herring that confuses the issue for a few chapters). There is a faithful dachshund. There is the idea that well-born families’ daughters must marry well, and that this is crucial to the family’s continuance. There is the idea that dangerous and illegal things happen in bricked-up cellars with secret means of access (this one carries through right to The Girl in the Cellar from 1961). The heroine is a kind of amalgam of many other Wentworth heroines; plucky, upper-class, broke, resourceful, and about to fall in love.
Most crucially, there is romance and marriage. Marriage, indeed, is the sub-theme of this book. A “dower house” is of course the home of the widow of the estate-owner, after the estate has passed to his son. I don’t think it’s entirely an accident that the blameless widow Amabel is brought to the Dower House to restore its reputation; she is focused on marrying off her daughter and a quarter of the book is devoted to her (rather charming) love affair with her former beau. In symbolic terms, she redeems this house of failed marriages and makes it fecund again. Amabel’s first husband — well, the story is only sketched in, but she made the error of not marrying Julian for love, apparently by marrying an older man of whom her parents approved. Her second marriage shall redeem her first; similarly her daughter is enjoined to marry for love, although Amabel sensibly does nothing to discourage her flighty daughter’s attention from remaining upon the wealthy youngster whom she believes she loves. Amabel’s sister Agatha is said to have married a “little worm” who merely wanted to be comfortably provided for for life and thus urges Amabel to marry for love. Even the housekeeper Ellen’s marital relations figure in the story.
And the ultimate reference to marriage is so melodramatic, it’s actually hilarious. Unfortunately I have to give away some of the plot to share it with you, so you may skip the rest of this paragraph if you feel strongly about that. One of the evil gang is the long-lost twin sister Annie of the elderly nurse’s daughter who lives in the house (don’t worry, this is completely obvious in the book’s context). This is also a repeating theme in the Miss Silver novels; a lower-class woman who marries a villain and is forced to assist him in committing crimes, much to her distress. Annie disappeared years ago because she fell in love with the villain and ran away with him but — and this is apparently crucial — he married her. (“He married me to have a hold on me.”) How we know this is crucial is that at the end, when the villainous plot is coming to its climax, Annie betrays her husband to save Amabel’s life and, as the police are closing in, has an intense scene with her mother whom she hasn’t seen in decades.
“Her husband?” she said in a new voice. “Annie, ha’ you got a husband? Tell me the truth, my girl. Are you a lawful married woman? Have you got your lines?”
Annie lifted her wet face and met her mother’s eyes.
“I’ve got to go to prison, Mother,” she sobbed. “I’ve got to go to prison—there’s no one can save me from going to prison. But I’ve got my marriage lines.”
“The Lord be praised for all His mercies!” said Mrs. Brown.
Praise the Lord indeed. Attempted murder, personation, forgery, a prison term, pfft. But living in sin, now, THAT is a crime. I roared with laughter at this point, although I doubt I was meant to.
As I’ve said before, I do enjoy seeing thematic reverberations (all the references to marriage for nearly every character) in a book like this, and honestly I’m a little surprised to find something this professional in a work of this age, so early in the career of this writer. I found it a pleasant experience to notice that this is what she was doing — I’m not fond of deeply buried themes that make me work like a grad student to tease meaning out of them — and to trace the evolution of this concept through all the sub-plots and characters. So this is why, as I say, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. But then, I have a great fondness for Patricia Wentworth novels because I like the way they make me feel while reading them; as though I am in a kinder, gentler world where class differences are sharply marked but accepted by all as appropriate, where the continuation of the social system is of the utmost importance, and where bad people who commit murders are caught and punished, and order is restored. To have that feeling, I’m apparently prepared to sacrifice depth of characterization and believable plot structures; had I been the typical mystery reader of 1925, I doubt I would have missed them for a moment. As always, your mileage may vary.
Notes on social history
My first instinct was to think that £200 was a fairly small sum, but then I got curious since my touchstone, also from a mystery of this vintage, is that an upper-class unmarried woman could scrape by on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. I did a little research and found out that if I wanted to pay the equivalent for a trip to Egypt today, the buying power in 2016 Canadian dollars of that £200 is approximately $20,000. There are a number of ways of doing this translation, so I may have misinterpreted, but it gave me a way to appreciate what the heroine gains by agreeing to spend six months in a “haunted house”. What is singularly impossible to believe is why anyone would pay that sum to achieve the result, but there you go, without it there would be no novel.
What are marriage “lines”? Find out here.
Notes on publishing history
You can obtain here the electronic copy of this book from Amazon, which today is selling it for CDN$3.86 with free shipping. I note the trade paperback edition exists as well, for an average of about CDN$20. No copies are today available on AbeBooks but I see a shabby-looking jacket-less first edition on eBay for about CDN$475 with postage. This seems expensive to me, but perhaps scarcity has a great deal to do with it. To my knowledge, there has never been another paperback edition before this year’s and I do not remember seeing or holding a physical copy in 45+ years.