The Clock Strikes Twelve, by Patricia Wentworth (1944)

the-clock-strikes-twelve-ebook-by-patricia-wentworthHappy 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. 

6817318124_b9ea7be764_bWhat 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.

51yml8w2qylPhyllida, 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.

2519319-_uy200_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.

07265Almost 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.

3463Why 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.

patricia_wentworth_the_clock_strikes_twelveThere’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.

16260There 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.

660273I 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.

9780060924089What 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.

clock-strikes-12-32I 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.

9780446349055-us-300The 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.

 

 

 

Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

cropped-author-photoMiss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. 😉  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.

october-8-challenge-chart1

Poison in the Pen, by Patricia Wentworth (1954)

Poison in the Pen,  by Patricia Wentworth (1954)

Patricia_Wentworth_Poison_In_The_PenAuthor: Patricia Wentworth published 32 volumes in the Miss Silver series between 1928 and 1961; she also wrote dozens of non-series novels. The Miss Silver novels are all classic mysteries; Wentworth’s other novels are sometimes mysteries, sometimes gentle thrillers, or “woman in jeopardy” novels. Her first novel was published in 1910 and was set against the background of the French Revolution. Most of her books feature a romantic subplot and a beautiful young woman who is in some way menaced.

9780340217924Publication Data: As noted below, to the best of my knowledge, the first edition of this novel is from the United States, Lippincott in 1955; the first UK edition appears to be Hodder and Stoughton, 1957. There may well be an edition I’ve overlooked; there are many, many paperback editions from both the United States and the UK.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read does not discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery but it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Poison in the Pen begins the same way as many of the other volumes in this long series; handsome young Detective-Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard comes to visit his old friend Miss Silver in her lovingly-detailed drawing room. Frank has dozens of cousins and the plight of one of them is something that he wants to bring to Miss Silver’s attention and perhaps get some advice or assistance. Joyce Rodney has a delicate child and a husband who died while working in the Middle East; she was grateful when her late husband’s elderly cousin, Miss Renie Wayne, offered her a home in the village of Tilling Green. The trouble is that Joyce has been getting vicious anonymous letters — and she’s not the only one in the village receiving them.

715673309The local Manor is under the charge of Colonel Roger Repton, who is impoverished, and who is the guardian of young Miss Valentine Grey, who is wealthy. Valentine is about to marry Gilbert Earle, of the Foreign Office, who will be able to use her money since he has five unmarried sisters who need dowries when he inherits the title of Lord Brangston. Roger’s highly decorative but completely bitchy young wife Scilla also lives at the Manor, as does Roger’s unmarried sister Miss Maggie. The poison pen letters accuse Joyce of trying to attract the attentions of Gilbert Earle.

A few days later, Miss Silver reads in The Times that a young woman who ekes out a living as a dressmaker, Doris Pell, has been found drowned on the grounds of the Manor in a stretch of “ornamental water”; she too has been receiving vicious anonymous letters and is felt to have committed suicide. The Yard has been called in, and Miss Silver is brought in by them as a kind of spy. She travels to Tilling Green “on vacation” and takes a place as a “paying guest” in Miss Renie’s “Willow Cottage”;  Miss Renie obligingly clacks her tongue until Miss Silver has a complete picture of the affairs of the village, including eccentric Mr. Barton, who has a badly scarred face, does his own housework and has seven cats. Although Valentine Grey’s wedding is imminent, Miss Renie dwells upon her first love, the adventuresome writer Jason Leigh.

Meanwhile, village gossip is making the rounds that the village kindergarten teacher, Connie Brooke, knows who wrote the poison pen letters that drove poor Doris Pell to drown herself. Connie is deputized to take the place of a sickly bridesmaid at the wedding rehearsal — because the dress will fit her! — and later at a small party at the Manor is seen to have been crying. When she talks about her sleeplessness, Miss Maggie offers her some sleeping pills left over from an illness a few years ago.

As is inevitable in a Miss Silver novel, Valentine’s true love Jason Leigh picks this moment to return to her life and the rest of the novel will concern her difficulties in breaking off her imminent wedding with Gilbert Earle and admitting that she has always loved Jason; Valentine tells Jason, in a secret late-night meeting, that the wedding will be called off. What will help is that, immediately after her own secret meeting, she overhears Gilbert having a secret meeting with Scilla Repton, who is the true object of his affections; unfortunately, Gilbert must marry for money and Valentine is his best hope, he tells Scilla.

Upon her wedding morning, Valentine receives a poison-pen letter suggesting that Gilbert had also been carrying on with the late Doris Pell (and Scilla Repton) and also had already married in Canada years ago. But the entire village is completely in an uproar immediately upon the discovery of Connie Brooke’s dead body. Valentine tells Gilbert she can’t marry him. Miss Silver, of course, realizes that if Connie Brooke did actually know who the poison-pen writer is, her death may not have been an accidental overdose of sleeping pills but … murder.

Miss Silver brings Scotland Yard up to date, and keeps digging into the tangled affairs of the village as only she can; Miss Renie’s constant chatter contains many nuggets of information, and it is clear that, in this particular village at least, everyone’s comings and goings and opinions and past actions are the constant subject of discussion for most of the villagers. Meanwhile, Scilla Repton learns that Gilbert is now free, and quarrels with her husband as a result of her having been indiscreet about telephoning him. Colonel Repton tells her he has had anonymous letters about Scilla and Gilbert that arouse his suspicion — he tells her to get out and intimates that he too knows who wrote the letters. This information is immediately flashed around the village due to a helpful and gossipy maid, Florrie.

The next day, Sunday, there is the weekly Work Party (the village women make clothes for the less fortunate); Scilla encounters a woman who has been well-known to be unrequitedly in love with Roger Repton, Miss Mettie Eccles. Mettie takes Roger in a cup of tea to his study, where he is avoiding the gaggle of needlewomen, while Miss Silver comforts Roger’s sister Maggie. But when Mettie returns to see if Roger wants another cup of tea, he is found to have been poisoned by cyanide. Mettie immediately and loudly accuses Scilla Repton of the murder and spills the beans to all and sundry about their estrangement.

Miss Maggie collapses with the shock and Miss Silver helpfully moves in to take care of her and the household, enabling her to be present at all the interviews with Scotland Yard. The eccentric Mr. Barton proves to have been one of the last people to see the late Colonel Repton, and proves to be a woman-hater who testifies that the Colonel was not considering suicide, as Scilla has vaguely suggested.

Miss Silver discusses the case further with Scotland Yard and builds a tentative case against a number of people, merely pointing out the possibilities. But it is not until she goes to interview the first victim’s aunt, Miss Pell, that she learns a crucial fact about Doris Pell’s last afternoon of work that may explain everything that has happened. She discusses the case with a few more people and finally ends up confronting the murderer directly in a house with a strong smell of gas. Everything comes to a head in a dramatic climax and Miss Silver takes the final chapter to explain the entire complex plot to Detective-Inspector Abbott.

1094842873Why is this book worth your time?

One of the principal virtues of the long Miss Silver series is that each book contains a set of constancies which anchor the reader. In the beginning of each book, we always see Miss Silver’s drawing room and go through a litany of the specific Victorian pictures and pieces of furniture which exemplify her comfort and success. In each book, Miss Silver’s wardrobe, very nearly unchanging over the decades, is mentioned; the black velvet coatee that she reserves for wear in draughty country houses, the details of her dresses and hats and heirloom jewelry. We know the names and habits of her nieces (in this volume, the foolish Gladys Burkett is thinking of leaving her husband Andrew Robinson), the excellence of her maid Hannah at making scones, her constant cough when she wishes to reprove someone, and the ever-present knitting (with needles held in the Continental style low in her lap) — we always know what she is knitting, in what colour of wool, and for whom.

And every Miss Silver novel is, in its own way, very similar to all the others. There is always a beautiful young woman who is unhappy. (She frequently has caramel-coloured eyelashes.) The young woman’s romantic life is in some way snarled or frustrated. There is always a plot which even the simplest reader can discern is moving towards disaster; either someone is having an unfortunate romantic affair, or someone is about to marry the wrong person, or, in the classic pattern of Golden Age mysteries, a wealthy person at the centre of the action is quarrelling with relatives, changing testamentary dispositions, and/or uncovering crimes against a large estate. Miss Silver is called in — either by Scotland Yard or some interested party — and somehow embeds herself in the social fabric of the people involved in the case. And then she talks with people. She talks with lords and ladies, maidservants and mechanics, and most often other elderly women, who are seen to be in command of all the essential facts. Miss Silver, in fact, is a wonderfully skilful listener, and she encourages people to go into incredible detail about things which seem unimportant but which later turn out to be essential. In this volume, for instance, the reader who has been paying very close attention is aware of the colours of the bedroom carpets of four people — one of whom is the murderer. And the colours of those carpets are of crucial importance upon a very minor but vital point.

poison-in-the-penIn fact, it is clear that these novels are written for women; no doubt about it. They contain endless details of what women are wearing; Scilla’s clothes, immediately after the death of her husband, are a case in point.

“Scilla Repton … was still wearing the tartan skirt and emerald jumper, but she had taken time to put on fresh make-up, and her hair shone under the ceiling light. It had been in her mind to put on a black dress and play the disconsolate widow, but something in her rebelled. And what was the good of it anyway when there wasn’t anyone in the house that didn’t know that she and Roger were all washed up? … as she sat, her legs crossed, the mesh of the stockings so fine that it hardly seemed to be there at all, the red shoes a little too ornate, a good deal too high in the heel.”

Scilla, you see, is city and not “county”, and thus is not living up to the traditions of the Manor House; her clothes reveal that she is indeed the tramp who’s having an extra-marital affair. But Miss Silver understands clothes very well:

“If Miss Silver’s own garments were quite incredibly out of date, it was because she liked them that way and had discovered that an old-fashioned and governessy appearance was a decided asset in the profession which she had adopted. To be considered negligible may be the means of acquiring the kind of information which only becomes available when people are off their guard. She was fully aware that she was being treated as negligible now. She thought that Scilla Repton was putting on an act, and she wondered why she had chosen just this pose of callous indifference. She would not have expected good taste, but what was behind these bright colours, this careful indifference?”

Poison-in-the-Pen-279982Indeed, Miss Silver spends her life being considered negligible by nearly everyone, which enables her to listen to all the gossip unnoticed from the corner of the room. And this, I suggest, is meant to appeal to women readers. I’ll even advance that women readers who are habitually overlooked in their everyday lives are meant to see themselves in these novels, being able to solve mysteries that baffle the police by dint of knowing what colour their next-door neighbour’s bedroom carpet is. Miss Silver is seen as powerless, elderly, useless and gossipy, but she commands the respect of high-ranking police officers and is not above physically confronting the occasional murderer. Indeed, she focuses the abilities that most of the world sees as useless — gossip, knowledge of masses of tiny details about the lives of others, memory of everyone’s past — and turns them into assets in plots which are designed to show these talents as crucial.

I must confess that I’ve always found the Miss Silver novels charming and relaxing. Although there is little plotting that is so complex in the books that it will trouble the experienced mystery-solver to figure out, occasionally Wentworth manages to slip a suspect under the radar; this is one of those novels, I think. It was so long ago when I first read it that I can’t remember if I was surprised or not, I think it’s entirely possible that even experienced solvers will miss the key clues, as they are buried in a morass of detail about the everyday lives of the villagers.

I think one of the reasons that I enjoy the novels so much is that Wentworth has a huge skill at depicting character through detail; we see people using certain language when they speak, or wearing certain clothes, or even performing certain everyday activities, and we know what we are meant to know about them. There are few cardboard characters in these books; even minor walk-ons are given distinguishing factors that make them believable.  (In this book, look for the character of Miss Pell, aunt to the first victim; she’s only seen for a few pages, but it’s her religious convictions that explain why she’s withheld information, and this is delightfully and subtly portrayed.) Specifically, Wentworth shows us character by way of pinpointing social class. The reader can tell with absolute certainty where individual characters fit into the social matrix of English village life; this is shown by what they wear, and say, and do.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, this focus upon social class is part of Wentworth’s charm, because I believe she does it with the assured skill of an expert in small details (the precise height of Scilla Repton’s heels shows that she’s not really “to the Manor born”). And I believe that the reason Wentworth had such a long career, and has remained constantly in print for a century, is that she uses this skill at writing about small details that reveal class in order to write books that reassure people about their own place in the social system. It is easy to see where Wentworth’s readers are meant to fall — they are above the humblest villagers, the dressmakers and shopkeepers and housekeepers, and very nearly the equal of the lords and ladies of the manor, if it were not for the accidents of birth and inherited money. The humblest villagers are shown warts and all, and the reader can easily feel superior to their low-class modes of expression and focus upon the quotidian and the mundane. The middle classes, artisans and professionals, are displayed sympathetically, for the most part. Sometimes they are bravely facing financial adversity, sometimes they are truckling to their wealthy relatives, or sacrificing their romantic and personal lives for the sake of children or invalids. Even Scilla Repton here is not innately evil; she is a woman out of her natural milieu and thus eventually a figure of pity rather than scorn.

m8NYCTqd45kN9gypsf5dezwAnd the upper classes are no better than they should be, which I believe is meant to be comforting to the middle class. Certainly in Wentworth novels the possession of large sums of money is only rarely a source of happiness; most often it makes you the object of murderous intentions from your poorer relatives and household hangers-on. Over and over again in Wentworth, wealthy middle-aged men try to control the lives of their younger relatives and get murdered for their trouble; either that or they threaten to expose illegal or immoral behaviour and pay the terrible price. The titled gentry are really just like us, we are told, only they live in larger houses and have larger problems. In this book, for instance, Lady Mallett is a very minor character but one who speaks to Miss Silver immediately as an equal:

“If she didn’t mind what she said, it was astonishing how often other people didn’t mind it either. Her large dark eyes held an unfailing interest in her neighbours’ affairs. She dispensed kindness, interference, and unwanted advice in a prodigal manner. Her massive form, clad in the roughest of tweeds, was to be seen at every local gathering. Her husband’s long purse was at the disposal of every good work. Tonight she was handsomely upholstered in crimson brocade, with an extensive and rather dirty diamond and ruby necklace reposing on a bosom well calculated to sustain it. Large solitaire diamond earrings dazzled on either side of her ruddy cheeks. Her white hair rose above them in an imposing pile. Her small and quite undistinguished-looking husband had made an enormous fortune out of a chain of grocery stores.”

In fact, she is no different than a number of her neighbours, the difference being mainly her “husband’s long purse” and her title. Note the delightful tiny touch that her diamond and ruby necklace is “rather dirty”; you see, even the upper classes aren’t as clean as we might think.

There is a strong focus in the series upon Miss Silver’s Victorian upbringing and morals; she is a constant benchmark of high moral standards and the utmost in propriety. (In this volume, for instance, there is a sympathetic young woman who asks Miss Silver in a friendly way to call her by her first name; Miss Silver refuses, because it is inappropriate in the social context.) By having this benchmark constantly in place, the behaviour of others has something against which it can be measured. Although it’s rarely explicit, Miss Silver is constantly assessing people to see if they are acting according to the best standards of behaviour appropriate to their social class. Are titled women helping and guiding the community? Are poor women clean and honest? Are middle-class women dressed appropriately for their situation, and faithful to their husbands? And it is never enough that Miss Silver identifies murderers and other criminals and restores order, with the help of Scotland Yard. In Miss Silver novels, virtue is rewarded and transgression is punished. People who are morally unsound are punished or reproved by the end of the book, regardless of whether they are criminals or not; sometimes they see the error of their ways, and sometimes they leave the happy village and find a milieu more appropriate to their moral level.

n57850And that is why I enjoy Miss Silver novels, regardless of the difficulty of the mystery plots or the occasional less-than-inspired choices of plot twists. (Indeed, Miss Silver novels are frequently based around a wealthy person who quarrels with his entire family, identifies a criminal within his household, frustrates a young woman’s marriage for love, and rewrites his will all within hours — the evening of his death, everyone troops in and out of his final resting place at five-minute intervals and lies like troopers about when and why.) Miss Silver is like comfort food, in a moral and social sense. Everyone knows their place and returns to it, once order has been restored. Characters do not break the boundaries of their pigeonholes; love almost always triumphs over adversity. Miss Silver is the restorer of equilibrium in a fluffy pink bathrobe and a hairnet.

The very earliest Miss Silver novels are quite antique, but Patricia Wentworth wrote roughly the same novel over and over between 1937 and 1961. If you read them all, you will either be charmed or repelled by the constant repetition of certain elements — by your 25th or 30th such novel you will be able to chant the names of the pictures upon the walls of Miss Silver’s drawing room along with the narrator, and await with interest the appearance of Miss Silver’s bog-oak pearl brooch and her black velvet coatee. I’m one of the ones who is charmed, like a young child who insists that his favourite fairy tale be read verbatim and unvarying every evening. If you are not charmed by what I’ve suggested, simply turn away; expressing your disapproval would lead to a hortatory cough from Miss Silver and you would feel compelled to apologize and mend your ways.

Notes for the Collector:

To the best of my knowledge, the first edition of this novel is from the United States, Lippincott in 1955; the first UK edition appears to be Hodder and Stoughton, 1957. I find this a little odd because the author was British, but — these things happen. Both the US and UK first editions are, to my eye, relatively undistinguished; of course a first edition is always worth having, and as of today a Fine copy in a chipped jacket is selling from an American bookseller for $50. I’m a little surprised at how inexpensive this is, comparatively speaking.

6774816682If I were collecting a full set of Wentworth, and couldn’t afford first editions, I would be looking at paperbacks; either unusual editions or interesting ones. Unfortunately this particular title appears to have fallen through the cracks of my favourite possibility; in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Pyramid in the US put out a paperback edition of some Miss Silver novels that made them look like Gothic romances, complete with the girl in the billowing white garments running away from the spooky old castle (which, of course, has nothing to do with the contents of the book). This book doesn’t seem to be one of that series, sadly. One of my favourite uniform editions of Wentworth was from Coronet in the late 70s/early 80s; the covers featured a photograph of a dead body, reproduced from the action of the novel with some degree of fidelity. This one is of the corpse of Connie Brooke, I believe (the cover is nearby).

There is a 2013/14 uniform edition from Hodder & Stoughton in the UK* which I think is very attractive; the publishers have gone to some trouble to counterfeit “period” illustrations and, if they manage to produce all of the Miss Silver novels in this format, I think I’d definitely be collecting it. They are relatively inexpensive at the moment since they are in print, and although I doubt they are available in the United States because Bantam seems to have the American rights, I doubt they’d be too expensive to bring in from Canada, where I see them cheaply in used bookstores. I’ve added an illustration here of this volume’s bright blue cover showing a young woman recoiling in shock from the contents of a letter.

*My first publication of this post today contained an error which was immediately caught by my alert friend John of the excellent blog Pretty Sinister; see the comments below. I’ve made an emendation. I won’t trouble to correct my opinions, even the frequent silly ones, but I do like to be as accurate as possible about facts. 

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1954 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “G”, “Read one book that features a crime other than murder.” The primary focus of the book is the sending of poison-pen letters and a death which is thought to be an associated suicide. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

vintage-golden-card-00112