Time travel page turners

Somehow I discovered the books of Patricia Wentworth – on a list of recommended titles somewhere, perhaps. I found I could download the ebook of her first volume of Miss Silver mysteries from the library. From the first page of the first book I was transported to 1920s London.

I have enjoyed other books set in this time period: The Verity Kent mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs series. They are historical fiction and well-researched. Jill Paton Walsh continued Dorothy L. Sayers’ books, and Ben Schott has written very entertaining Jeeves and Wooster books imitating the style of P.G. Wodehouse. Patricia Wentworth was writing in and of her own time, however, and this makes every detail authentic and intriguing: house interiors, lighting, street scenes, shops, the thick London fog, clothing, language, and manners – as in the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Furthermore, the books are well-written, with interesting and complex characters who consider and question their positions in life. This is particularly so of the women characters. Hilary Carew in the second book is my favourite. She questions her engagement (and, in fact, has just broken it off, or ‘disengaged’ as she calls it) because she finds her fiance overbearing. Her courage, humour (she has a ‘poetic imp’ in her head which makes up rhyming couplets to describe her predicaments) and determination to pursue the mystery she wants to solve, leads her into danger which she meets bravely. She is also self-aware, and the author must have had her tongue in her cheek as she wrote about her. I liked her very much.

Without her fiance to foot the bill for lunch, Hilary finds “she would have to go and have a glass of milk and a bun in a creamery with a lot of other women who were having buns and milk, or Bovril, or milk with a dash of coffee, or a nice cup of tea. It was a most frightfully depressing thought, because one bun was going to make very little impression on her hunger, and she certainly couldn’t afford any more…Hilary found her creamery and ate her bun – a peculiarly arid specimen. There were little black things in it which might once have been currants but were now definitely fossils. Not a good bun. Hilary’s imp chanted mournfully: How bitter when your only bun/Is not at all a recent one.”

Through such characters the author shows what life could be like for a wide range of women dependent on men for money and respectability. Hilary’s situation is a stark contrast to the parallel life of a character who lives in constant fear of her husband (no tongue in cheek here). All three books’ mysteries centre on money, or the lack of, and they all involve wills. A woman having to earn her own living found herself in harsh and compromised situations in her employment, housing and in society in general. The law relating to women is also brought into question. I notice that some sites refer to these books as ‘cozy mysteries’, just as more recent fiction books about the domestic lives of women have been labelled ‘Aga sagas’. Both labels deliberately denigrate palatable forms of fiction for and by women. Jane Austen’s work still gets similarly dismissive comments. My enjoyment of these books was enhanced by the less palatable reading I had done previously, yet I was keenly aware of the serious issues Wentworth explores. Come to think of it, two such unpalatable books, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (see previous post Doomed) and The Silence by Don de Lillo are overbearing, like Hilary’s fiance, in that they speculate about possible futures of which we are all too well aware and they have a you-need-to-think-about-this tone – as if we haven’t – forcing it down your throat. Unpalatable.

What is unusual about these books is that Miss Silver is not the main character unlike the detective in all other crime fiction books I can recall. She is an elderly ‘enquiry agent’ who knits and takes notes as she listens to her clients who (at least in the first two books) are well into working on the mystery before she is brought in to help. A link is made with characters from the previous book who recommend her services (Miss Silver is knitting for Hilary’s baby in the third book). She offers advice, uncovers crucial evidence and becomes actively involved at times, but it is the other characters who work to solve the mystery and are central to the plot. Was the author influenced by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple? It’s possible. Miss Marple first appeared in a short story in a magazine in December 1927, but the first novel featuring her was not published until 1932. The first Miss Silver book was published in 1928. There are 32 books in this series alone (I don’t imagine I’ll read them all) and the author wrote about 72 books in total.

The 1928 publication date astounded me. My 92 year old mother was born in 1929. Yet the book didn’t seem particularly dated in its characterisation or dialogue (unlike Mum who utters: “whacko!” and “corker” and other quaint expressions from time to time) – although, the last book in this set (published in 1939) ended with a monologue in a style which reminded me of old movies in which a man imparts wisdom. The author died in 1961, the same year her 32nd Miss Silver mystery was published. I was six years old then. I wonder if she ever imagined people would still be reading and enjoying her books so many years later – let alone reading them as ebooks with freshly designed covers. Older versions of the covers are like a journey through time in themselves.

The three books were absorbing fire-side reading over a few rainy days.