Happy New Year!
In the spirit of the new year, I was trying to recall a Golden Age mystery that took place on New Year’s Eve. There are a fair number of these, I gather, but the one that first came to mind is this Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth, where the title gives you a strong indication that the changing of the date at the stroke of midnight is an important factor.
If you’re interested in a list of mystery books and movies that take place on New Year’s Eve, I’m happy to recommend you to the excellent list kept by the hard-working Janet Rudolph, found here. (She does all kinds of lists like this, very handy!) It’s interesting that I’d forgotten so many titles took place at New Year’s; I haven’t read J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Death in Fancy Dress and will be on the lookout for that one! As far as mystery films are concerned, I definitely recommend After The Thin Man (1936), where the plot turns upon the precise date.
WARNING: This essay concerns a 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 novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
Wealthy industrialist and martinet James Paradine puts together an assortment of ten family members for a dinner party on New Year’s Eve, 1941. The late Mrs. Clara Paradine is now remembered principally by a large portrait in his study where she is festooned with diamonds, and so his unmarried 50-something sister Grace keeps house for him with her well-known icy calm and total mastery of every situation. Mr. Paradine’s sons Mark and Richard (Dicky) are employed in the family business. Clara’s children by her first marriage, Frank and Brenda Ambrose, will also be at dinner, as will Frank’s wife Irene — who is principally concerned with her two children — and Irene’s sister Lydia, who is a spectacular (but tactless and headstrong) beauty with whom Mark and Dick are both enamoured. Grace adopted a child years ago, the delicately beautiful and frail Phyllida Paradine, who is the focus of Grace’s entire attention. And to make up the family party, the rabbity Albert Pearson is both James’s secretary and a distant cousin.
Phyllida, however, became Phyllida Wray a little more than a year ago when she married Elliot Wray, a vital employee of the Paradine company. Grace, however, cannot stand to have anyone take Phyllida away from her; she’s manufactured a story and broken up the marriage after only a few days. Phyllida and Elliot haven’t spoken in nearly a year, thanks to Grace’s machinations. Elliot, though, has been commanded to come to dinner by James, and this is one of the major contributions to an extremely difficult and unpleasant New Year’s Eve dinner.
The other difficulty is that James announces at dinner that one of the family “has been disloyal” and betrayed the family interests — and that he knows who it is. He announces that he will be in his study until midnight in order to give the guilty party an opportunity to confess. He doesn’t want to wash dirty family linen in public, so if and when the guilty party arrives, James will be “prepared to make terms”.
After such an opening sequence, no mystery reader worth their salt will be surprised to learn that the next morning, New Year’s Day, James Paradine is found to have gone over the parapet outside his study and is dead as a doornail. And for various reasons, this has to have happened precisely as the clock struck twelve.
Almost everyone in the house has no alibi. Lydia Pennington runs into her acquaintance Miss Silver buying wool in a department store and discovers that she is staying with her niece, literally across the hall from Mark Paradine’s flat. Lydia persuades Mark, the principal heir, that the case must be solved and that he has to bring in Miss Silver to do so.
The groundwork to this point has taken approximately half the book, but we now proceed to get a good idea of what must have happened on New Year’s Eve. Essentially most of the inhabitants trooped in and out of Mr. Paradine’s study at regular intervals between dinner and midnight, on subplots connected with a set of missing blueprints, another theft the details of which aren’t revealed until the end of the book, and various other smaller defalcations and misdemeanours. There’s also the ongoing warfare among Grace Paradine, Phyllida, and Elliot, as well as Lydia’s romantic dilemma.
Miss Silver, while producing an entire knitted outfit for one of her infant nephews, solves every sub-plot in sight (right down to a housemaid who’s been pilfering candy) in record time, mostly by invoking her knowledge of human nature. In a dramatic conclusion, the criminal leaps over the same parapet, saving the cost of a trial, and all romantic and other sub-plots are resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.
Why is this book worth your time?
Well, I’m a big fan of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels and would recommend that you read all of them. That being said, if you come to this expecting to learn a lot about Miss Silver, you can expect to be disappointed. Miss Silver’s presence is rather unlikely — a stack of coincidences that are hard to swallow. And to my mind, what she does here is not so much solve the mystery using clues per se; it’s more like she analyzes the personalities of the suspects and narrows things down to a few by realizing what clues must exist and setting out to find them. This is more intuitive than I usually care for in a mystery plot but Wentworth carries us along very ably and really you won’t notice much unless you’re looking.
There’s an interesting theme in this book that I think is quite well developed but not made enough of. Essentially there are two female characters in the book who are monomaniacally devoted to their children; one is played for laughs and the other is pathological. This hearkens back to something I’ve observed about Wentworth’s work before, in that she knows how to construct “situations that a woman especially would experience as jeopardy, and she tells the story in a way that strikes a not wholly unpleasant fear into the hearts of women. … [S]he knows what would scare a woman.” Here it’s the 50-something Grace, who breaks up Phyllida’s marriage just because she wants Phyllida all to herself forever. Wentworth does a variation on this theme in The Gazebo (1956) where the possessive mother tries to ruin her daughter’s romantic life … in both cases, carrying it through by sheer force of personality. I’m afraid as a male my reaction would be, “*** you, I’m off to get married, see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya,” but that tends not to complicate plots in a useful way 😉 Perhaps I’m over-generalizing, but it seems to be more woman-on-woman bullying that a woman would understand in a way that a man could not.
The nice part of this here is that it’s actually explained in a way that makes sense. Grace’s own marriage went sour before it happened because she found her betrothed fooling around (innocently) with another woman, so it’s pretty clear why she’s determined to spoil Phyllida’s marriage. There are a lot of sour middle-aged and elderly women in Wentworth’s oeuvre who do this to their younger female relatives. Wentworth being the clever writer that she is, there’s also at least one instance where the once-betrothed couple pretend to be dead cuts to each other, but in fact are collaborating in a criminal enterprise. Here, Irene is depicted as a fool who runs to the doctor when she perceives the slightest (imaginary) illness in one of her children … but there’s an incident in her past where she very nearly committed a murder by hysterically responding to a threat to her kitten. The male police officers think it’s entirely possible she could have done the same again.
There are plenty of things here that will resonate with the frequent reader of Miss Silver. There’s the housemaid who knows something important, and only Miss Silver can coax it out of her. There’s the beautiful young woman who keeps two wealthy men on a string without making up her mind. There’s the wealthy patriarch who runs his large country manor with an iron fist, a weedy young man whom everyone dislikes, and a butler who might not be as morally upright as he seems. There are handsome young male nonentities whose function is to be romantically involved with the beautiful young women. All these characters have cognates in other Miss Silver stories, although with slight variations as seems appropriate; literally, anyone can be guilty depending on how Wentworth writes the ending. But we have seen, or will see, these types repeating in other stories throughout her oeuvre.
I will say that I enjoyed this book more than it might seem, considering that I’ve rather picked it apart above. The character of Grace is really well done; very menacing, and thoroughly thought through. You really believe that she would lie and cheat and do underhanded things to break up Phyllida’s marriage, and you know why she’s like that, and you can see just how efficient and effective she is at it. And when Phyllida says the one thing she must never say to Grace, just before the finale — you know why things explode the way they do. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I can’t tell you the ending, but it’s dramatic and has a great rightness about it that you will appreciate. I also liked the minor character of the awful Albert, who is constantly retailing facts about the world that no one wants or needs to know. You realize before the end why he too is the way he is, and it’s nicely written. Even the character of the silly Irene, played mostly for comic relief, is effective because you know enough about her to realize that, yes, she actually could be the murderer, and why. There are no 100% red herrings in this book.
So as always, I do recommend this to anyone who likes this sort of small-scale puzzle mystery, filled with the upper classes and their snarled romantic relationships. Miss Silver is not much in the foreground, which is a little disappointing, but the characterizations are sufficiently well done to make the book move along briskly to a satisfying conclusion. Try it and see if you agree.
What do we learn about the social context?
The first thing to note is that although this book was published in 1944, it is very specifically set on New Year’s Eve, as 1941 becomes 1942. So yes, there is a certain amount of to-do about clothing coupons, and Miss Silver doesn’t have the selection of wool colours that she might like, but there is no food rationing that I could see and all the males don’t seem too worried about the prospect of being called up. I imagine in 1944 this book was hearkening back to a kinder, gentler England of 1942, if you know what I mean, before things got really bad. You might imagine someone reading this in the Tube during the blitz and sighing for the good old days, as it were.
I have to acknowledge a debt to my friend and fellow blogger Moira Redmond, whose excellent blog Clothes In Books looked at this specific volume last July. She says the things about women’s clothes that I would like to say if I knew what they were, especially with respect to Lydia’s exotic brocade trousers made out of “gorgeous furniture stuff and no coupons”. It was Moira who pointed out the “monstrous silver epergne” that is constantly filled with food and the above insight about food rationing is really hers and not mine. She also notes that the details of the dinner are “like a child’s version of how they think a smart dinner might be”; my own take is that this is food porn for people in 1944 eating rationed food. I have shamelessly stolen her photo of a “monstrous epergne” to show you, because it’s so perfectly grotesque. Can you imagine dining with that blocking your view of your tablemates? Moira’s blog is always entertaining and she has an acute eye for details of clothing and furniture in old mysteries; you should check out her blog and I will add that I follow it for good reason.
There is quite a bit of text and sub-text in this book about family and marriage, which seems to be a constant preoccupation of Wentworth; this is an unhappy family to be sure, but the point is constantly made that everyone, even the unpleasant Albert, is a member of the family by blood or marriage. Wentworth’s idea of family in this book seems to be of a bunch of rats locked in a very expensive and posh cage, but that’s as it should be for detective fiction.
The outside world is so little a part of this book that for the life of me, I cannot remember what Mr. Paradine’s company actually makes or does, although I re-read the book just the other day. What is important, as we are told a number of times, is that everything in his home is very plush and fancy, because that’s the way he likes it. Nothing is shabby and nothing is quite new, but everything is the very best that can be had. This apparently was Wentworth’s way of explaining that Mr. Paradine was a wealthy member of the upper class (or upper middle class, I’m not quite certain), but not a titled gentleman; they actually embrace a little shabbiness and don’t have their wives painted dripping with diamonds, as his was.
There is surprisingly little in this book of the kind of tiny detail that usually delights me, although I had to look up at least one phrase (de haut en bas) to understand just what a snotty bitch Grace was being. It’s interesting that Mr. Paradine keeps “boiled sweets” in his desk — to the modern person that’s “hard candy”. I was surprised to see that Wentworth thinks that a roll of blueprints could be adequately concealed by a folded newspaper; not in my experience.
(One day later) I came back to add to this piece, which I rarely do, because I wanted to mention the absence of something that occurred to me later. Simply put, this household doesn’t celebrate New Year’s Eve in any way that we would recognize. No champagne, no kissing, no counting down with the clock, and everyone is in bed well before midnight. Grace gives out a few small presents to people, and it’s not clear to me whether that’s leftover Christmas presents, but other than that, this is not much of a holiday. All they do is kill the head of the household 😉
My favourite edition
This was a tough call. I prepared this piece using a combination of an e-book from Open Road, shown at the top of this piece, and my copy of Popular Library #131, shown near the top, with the lurid colours, the falling male silhouette, and the gap-toothed skull. All in all, I have to give a slight preference to the Popular Library. The colours, the airbrush art, the sheer vulgarity, are all wonderfully appealing to me. But my regular readers know that I have a peculiar fondness for the Coronet editions where they actually took a photograph of someone as if he was the corpse, and that is a close second. I note that there are many, many editions of this book and you won’t have any trouble finding one in a used bookstore or online if you try.
I note that today a copy of the first Hodder & Stoughton edition from a British bookseller is today about US$50 whereas a near fine copy of PL #131 is US$28 from the highly regarded Graham Holroyd. When Mr. Holroyd says “near fine” that means so close to fine you won’t be able to tell the difference; he’s a bibliophile who only deals in the best. If I didn’t already have my own VG+ copy, worth perhaps US$15, I’d be ordering Mr. Holroyd’s.