I’d seen Patricia Wentworth’s books in the library, I’d picked up a couple in charity shops, but it was Lisa’s warm praise that had me seeking out the first book in the series and starting to read.
I do like a golden age mystery, I was curious to meet a lady detective who predated Miss Marple by a few years, and, as checking the catalogue reassured me that my library has most of the books, I wasn’t too worried about the possibility of falling in love with this particular series .
There are thirty-two books in total, and they were published between 1928 and 1961.
Now, let’s start at the beginning.
The story opens with Charles Moray returning to his family home in England after a long absence overseas. He had left because his fiancée, his childhood sweetheart, had jilted him on the eve of their wedding with no explanation at all, and he had returned because his father had died. That hinted at story possibilities, but the actual story came as a surprise.
Charles arrived home at night, without telling anyone he was coming, and he was shocked to find that a gang, led by a man known only as Grey Mask, so-called because he was never seen without his disguise. Thinking quickly, Charles slipped silently into a childhood hiding place that allowed him to watch and listen. He heard talk of to getting rid of an heiress to get her inheritance; his inclination was to act, but he knew that he could not when he caught sight of Margaret Langton, his former fiancée.
Meanwhile, Margot Standing’s wealthy father had been lost at sea, leaving her to inherit a fortune. But there was a complication; the family solicitor explained that her father had left no will, no evidence of his marriage to the mother Margot had never known, and no evidence that she was his daughter. Unless proof could be found her indolent cousin Egbert would inherit; she hated him, and when he proposed she left home, determined to show that she could succeed on her own.
She didn’t know that she was the target of the Grey Mask Gang, who wanted to get her out of the way to be absolutely sure that she would not, could not inherit.
Charles was pursuing Margaret, trying to find out what was going on. Margaret found Margot, at a low ebb because life had played a cruel trick on her, and took her in. Charles realised who Margot was, and stepped in.
That was how the three principals came together.
There was a degree of silliness in the story, there was a degree of coincidence in the coming together of the characters, but the story worked. It was well written, the plot was intriguing, and the characters were engaging.
Charles drove the plot.
Margot was spoiled, she was oblivious to practicalities and the feelings of others, she talked non-stop and she was completely irrepressible, She could have been infuriating, but because her position was so horrible and because she was so good natured, it was easy to like her and to be entertained by her. The letters she wrote to her school-friend overseas were brilliant!
Margaret was the most interesting and intriguing character. She was mixed up with the criminal gang, but she wanted to protect Margot Standing; she said that she did want to resume her relationship with Charles Moray, but it was clear that she cared about him; she would not explain why she jilted Charles, why she lived as she did, why she was involved with the Grey Mask gang.
And then of course there is the detective, Miss Silver, who I haven’t mentioned yet because her presence in the story was very low key. A friend advised Charles to approach her at a time when he was finding more questions than answers, and she acted for him. It was clear that she watched people and had them watched, that she carried out research and had some excellent sources, but she didn’t offer explanations and often it seemed that she was guiding Charles, steering him towards a solution rather than presenting him with answers. I really liked that, and I hope it continues through the series.
Something else I particularly liked was the way Patricia Wentworth threaded serious questions – about Margaret’s life as a single woman and the choices that she made, about Margot’s vulnerability and the position she had been left in, and most of all about the consequences of not knowing our own history – through an classic golden age style mystery. The story is bold, but its author clearly understands where subtlety is required.
I guessed Grey Mask’s identity, but there was always more than enough happening to keep me interested, there was a great twist at the end that I really didn’t see coming, and there a very well executed and suspenseful final drama.
There were one or two loose ends, and there’s a question or two I’d like to ask the author, but nothing that spoiled the book for me.
It’s a book to be enjoyed not a book to be analysed, and now that I’ve read this first book in the series I’m definitely planning on reading more.
My impression of Miss Silver’s role in Grey Mask is that it was sort of coincidental, and that it wasn’t until after that book was fully realized that the author considered giving Miss Silver her own series. Sort of like how Albert Campion appears in Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley.
Yes, that would make sense – I’ll think about it as I move forward through the series.
I read these in the 70’s and enjoyed them for what they were. I hadn’t read all of them so now that you’ve mentioned Miss Silver, it might be time for another look.
Well, I loved this one, I’m told the series gets better, so I’d definitely agree it might be time for another look.
I can’t believe I just found one in a thrift shop. I read it but I don’t remember it at all. So I guess they’re out there.
Jane, I started much further down the series than you did, and it seems like Miss Silver is a more fully-formed character in the later books (not to mention more central). I haven’t come across this one yet. Some titles seem widely available (like The Chinese Shawl) and others very scare.
I have ‘The Chinese Shawl’ and my library has it too, but I’ve seen more reissued titles on the internet than I have in real life. I suspect the – like the Margaret Kennedy reissues – a few books are readily available and the rest are print on demand.
I adore Miss Silver! Quite a few of her books are available as ebooks and others are available through Audible. I’ve read all of them now (sigh) and many more than once. The only one I thought was just ridiculous was Lonesome Road, which was written early in the series.
I’ve warmed to Miss Silver on her first appearance so it’s lovely to know that she is so loved. The human story seems to be much more to the fore than it is in many mysteries of the period, and I particularly like that.
You are lucky having Miss Silver so accessible. I manage to find a few secondhand but very hard to come by.
I was really surprised last night to see that my library has only one title.
Oh, that is disappointing for both of you. I’m lucky that Cornwall has a fiction reserve, and that there are quite a few older large-print copies dotted around the county.
I think this is definitely the weakest ‘Miss Silver’ story (except the unfinished final one which they published anyway despite the narrative making no sense at all!) – the ones after Grey Mask are less skittish though coincidence always plays a really obvious part.
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I have one in the house – no recollection where it was bought, or by whom, but I hope to get round to it one day soon!