Saturday, June 14, 2014

Polishing Up: Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth (Review)

"I find it very read [a detective story] not set in rural England."

                                                       --W. H. Auden, "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948)

In Masters of the Humdrum Mystery and other writings I have argued that the view of most Golden Age novels as taking place in highly socially stratified villages and country houses is exaggerated, being a construction partly of post-WW2 retrospection.

W. H. Auden's "The Guilty Vicarage" essay has influenced the development of this view, as have, I suspect, the Miss Silver novels of Patricia Wentworth (1878-1961). Although in setting and milieu they seem like what we tend to think of as classic Golden Age English mysteries, most of them were in fact published after the outbreak of the Second World War, commonly seen as the end point of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949) is the fifteenth of the 32 Miss Silver mysteries, and one in which, I find, Wentworth is clearly embracing the mythic or magical aspect of the detective story, what Auden in his essay calls the "Great Good Place."  Murder disrupts the state of order in the village, requiring the detective to expose him or her and cast him out, restoring the disrupted order.  I think Wentworth's novel is an extremely good example of this sort of mystery.

In this particular tale Miss Silver comes to stay in the village of Lenton, to which she has been invited by an old school friend.  Her appearance is providential, for a most shocking murder soon takes place, one that threatens to produce a grave miscarriage of justice.

James Lessiter, son of Mildred Lessiter, widowed mistress of the decaying Melling House, after many years away making his fortune in business has returned to the family home, his mother having passed away.  Philistine that he is, Lessiter has no respect for tradition and plans to sell: "He had no regrets. The house could go.  If he wanted a place in the country, there were more amusing spots than Melling....Something modern and labour-saving."

Vindictive and, indeed, sadistic, Lessiter is determined as well to settle some old village scores. Soon, however, someone settles him.

Rietta Cray makes an ill-timed call
Lessiter is found dead, most classically: in his study at Melling House, his head stove in by the fireplace poker. Official suspicion quickly focuses on an old flame of Lessiter's, Rietta Cray, and her tempestuous nephew and ward, Carr Robertson.

Wentworth makes clear that neither of these characters, both of whom have their own love stories, can be guilty (with Agatha Christie one can never be sure of these things), so much of the novel has the quality of a suspense tale: Will Rietta or Carr be arrested, we wonder, and how will Miss Silver get them out of their grim predicament?

A good part of the novel involves Miss Silver uncovering a fact that we, the readers, already know; yet the final portion offers some rather fine deception and detection, I think.

Throughout it all, Miss Silver, the upright and elderly governess turned sleuth, functions superbly, in her quest for truth probing to people's emotional cores while placidly knitting "a cosy coat and knickers for her niece Ethel Burkett's little Josephine."

The characters in the book note the awesome phenomenon that is Miss Silver:

"I don't quite know why she impresses one, but she does.  It's a sort of mixture of being back at school again and finding yourself wandering about in the fairy story where you meet an old woman and she gives you a hazel nut with the cloak of darkness packed inside it."
"She knows people.  All the things they hide behind--appearance, manner, the show we put up to prevent other people knowing too much about us--she sees right through them, and judges you on what's left."

Throughout the novel as well, Wentworth compellingly conveys the social strata of the village, from the seemingly inevitably decaying genteel folk, to the professional class and tradespeople, to clerks, servants and inquisitive telephone operators.  One can debate the exact realism of this setting in 1949, but it is undeniably a well-conveyed one.

Through Miss Silver Wentworth continually invokes traditional standards of decency and honor. Usually what is older is deemed better ("There was nothing that was not suitable, but the general effect was that everything was a little too new").

The ethos is undoubtedly conservative.  At one point the author refers to "this hard post-war world," as if for many the pre-war world had not presented its certain share of hardness.  Miss Silver regrets that "labour shortages and heavy taxation" has led to the reduction of "so many fine country places." She allows that now "the good things of life were being spread more evenly," yet she laments "the passing of so much that was beautiful."

" moments of stress a man
could be dreadfully in the way."
However, there are some seemingly unorthodox notes. In an era where the word cougar referred only, I presume, to a big cat, Miss Silver sees a young man's romantic interest in an attractive, designing older woman (age 43) as something quite natural.

She also strikes something of a feminist note in this clever sentence: "With every esteem for the manly virtues, and a good deal of indulgence towards the manly failings, it had often occurred to [Miss Silver] that in moments of stress a man could be dreadfully in the way."

Perhaps one manly failing throughout the decades since the advent of Miss Silver has been a failure by many male mystery readers to appreciate the many "feminine" virtues of this lady detective.

For whatever Julian Symons and Jacques Barzun (see my previous post) may have thought about it, Miss Silver indeed did come to stay upon the literary scene--and she shows no sign yet of leaving it.


  1. I'm not bothered in the least by her feminine virtues or the "feminine writing" that Barzun is always attacking. Maud's got that Old Man in the Corner quality that irritates me. I don't like that guy either with his superior airs, tying knots in pieces of string, acting omniscient and sinister simultaneously.

    Carolyn Wells probably thought highly of Miss Silver. She sure fits the mold of the Transcendental Detective, a term I recently learned Wells "borrowed" form Julian Hawthorne. Everything you mentioned in this book was found in PILGRIM'S REST published three years earlier. But for my tastes other characters' assessments of Maud having supernatural powers, likening her to a witch or a fairy tale character with powers of sorcery, was going overboard. She does indeed seem superhuman in her observational skills and her intuition. But can't it also just be lucky guessing? For me it's bothersome that everyone is in awe of her. Why isn't someone skeptical? Especially the policemen. Perhaps it's lazy writing so that Wentworth really doesn't have to explain some of the more farfetched aspects of her involved plots. My favorite is when a writer not interested in delivering medical information writes something like "The coroner then gave Inspector Goodman a lengthy lecture outlining the autopsy results." conveniently allowing the writer to omit any info dumping but also expecting the reader to accept facts without proof. I have yet to read more than one book with Maud Silver and I do plan to try a few more, but based on the several reviews this month alone (as if she's calling out to us from the Great Beyond- "Notice me!") already I can see Wentworth's formulaic repetition in the overall structure of her books.

    BTW, no mention of her coughing in this book. Was it absent or were you not bothered by it?

  2. "(as if she's calling out to us from the Great Beyond- "Notice me!")"

    LOL. I know Noah did a Wentworth piece too. I think both pieces were spawned by conversations we've been having on Facebook.

    On the cough matter, she coughed thirty times in this one, right on the dot. I was wondering whether she would make it to thirty, that's usually her ceiling, I think. And she did!

    Once her cough is designated "thoughtful"--she must really have it honed! I have to admit I find the coughing odd. I understand it's a communication device on her part, but it's still strange to me. I always mark the number of coughs in the margins, it's like counting the number of times in a Crofts that someone says "ghastly".

    Oh, another thing here that I didn't mention was people saying "My dear so-and-so!" a great deal. It really kicked in at the end, I got a little tired of that.

    Everything otherwise really clicked for me in this one, however, in contrast with her Eternity Ring, which I read and reviewed here less favorably last year (that book closely preceded this one and is mentioned twice in Miss Silver Comes to Stay).

    Is Miss Silver a great character? I would say she is a great mythic archetype within detective fiction. However, I actually "like" Miss Marple, for example, better as a character. But I was impressed with Miss Silver in this one. It helped that the plot was superior to that in Eternity Ring. If one is in the mood to embrace the more stereotypical village/country house mystery, I think this is a fine example of it.

    My beef is with people treating this particular style of classical English mystery as if it were all there was back then, during the Golden Age. As I point out, most of these Miss Silvers weren't even published during what is customarily thought of as the Golden Age.

    Lots of GA mysteries don't actually have these settings or, if they do, they don't present them in the same way. John Street, for example, exhibits different social attitudes in his village mysteries. Street's got a book which praises the go-getter for leaving the country house and making big money in business, where in this Wentworth the man who does that is seen as a bad person, someone who was unfaithful to the country way. Wentworth often is hard on people who have abandoned the village, betrayed it if you will, or have come to the village from the city and don't fit in and don't want to fit in. It's much more traditionalist and conservative, I think. When people say, oh, Wentworth is great at presenting England as it was back then, I'm somewhat dubious. She's certainly good, I think, at presenting an interesting idealized fictional version of English village life, definitely what Auden called the Great Good Place (not original to him, but aptly applied).

  3. One of the things I liked very much about this book was the subplot concerning a character, Catherine Welby, who has been "given" furniture and ornaments to furnish a house and there is some doubt as to whether these were loans or gifts. The recipient has apparently assumed they were gifts to the point where she has sold some of them to bolster her lifestyle ... and now is being called to account. To me, this is a very middle-class or upper-class problem; the damage of an accusation of theft by conversion would be more to Ms. Welby's social position than anything else, but to the right person, this could be a strong motivation for murder.
    As far as the superhuman powers, I think Miss Silver has a well-developed observational sense that can be seen in a brief passage from her interview of Ms. Welby in Chapter 32:
    "The haze hung between them, but something had happened. It would have been difficult to say just what it was— the tensing of a muscle, the momentary halting of a breath, the slightest involuntary movement of a finger. Miss Silver had always found it useful to give particular attention to the hands of anyone whose response to questioning inclined towards reticence. The hand with which Catherine was holding her cigarette remained steady. If the fingers pressed a little more closely, it was a movement impossible to detect. But the little finger had jerked. Miss Silver coughed."
    I believe the cough in this case stands for Miss Silver saying, "You lied, and I've seen through it." Anyway, her knowledge of human nature is not presented as supernatural except by credulous people in Miss Silver's vicinity who don't know the nature of her skill set; rather like a magician or hypnotist or fortune-teller who notices tiny details as part of his work.
    I'm glad, Curt, that you've brought your considerable analytic skills to looking at Miss Silver, one of my favourite "comfort foods" of detective fiction. She can cough up a lung for all I care ;-) as long as she keeps on puncturing the pretensions of characters like Catherine Welby. Thank you for choosing this topic! And as always you've made me want to go back and re-read -- in this case, Auden's essay.

  4. Noah, thanks, your blog post I enjoyed too and I'm sure stimulated this one. Like John says, it may be Miss Silver influencing us from the Great Beyond!

    I agree about the portrayal of Catherine Welby, that line I quoted about everything being "a little too new" was in reference to her. Wentwoth's books may be "conservative" but she certainly can be critical of people within the more genteel class, people who fail to live up to that class' social (and moral) codes.

    I agree about her "power" in this one, nothing supernatural about it, though it can seem that way to people. I thought there was some very intelligent observation on her part and, unlike, some of the Wentworths I have read, I quite enjoyed the detection aspect here.

  5. Miss Silver must have called me from the Great Beyond too, as some months ago I've read her second novel The Case is Closed.

    Judging by your review, Curt, this is a very different affair from Miss Silver Comes to Stay. For a start it is a hybrid of thriller and detective story. Then, it is very far from being cozy, featuring physical action and violence in abundance and being set in rather depressing places (indeed ending in a slum). Finally, its main characters are not genteel but professional and working class people, some of them quite nasty.

    I found it flawed -- neither the thriller part nor the detective one are particularly brilliant, and the combination of both doesn't work. Yet somehow, I became curious enough about Wentworth to want to read more from her. The book is well written and with some engaging and well-drawn characters. I also liked Wentworth's empathy with the downtrodden (not only, but perhaps particularly women "downed" and "trampled on" by men -- these are actual words from the book), which is a very strong undercurrent throughout the book. I used to think of Wentworth as merely an epigone, but after The Case is Closed and your review, I have some doubts. I guess I will have to try another one.

    I will also need this to form a definite opinion of Miss Silver. On the basis of this sample, she seems to be a strange compound of Mr. Reeder, Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley, but since she is absent for most of the book I can't really judge.

    By the way, I don't know if you have read The Case is Closed but I thought the detective part of the plot was heavily influenced by Freeman Wills Crofts!

    1. That's extremely interesting Henrique. I left out her four earlier books from consideration (see my previous post) precisely because the thriller elements in them, I concluded, are strong. Really until 1943 Wentworth was essentially a thriller writer. She then moved into genteel detective fiction, at the age of 65. I think this fact isn't as appreciated as it should be, since it's mostly the Miss Silver books that get reprinted. In fact, a lot of the older crime thrillers have long been oop and are valuable collectors' items. Hardly anyone today as read them!

      I haven't actually read The Case Is Closed, but had started it some time back, then gotten interrupted and never got back to it (this happens to me quite a bit, actually!). You make me want to read it, even with your comments about the flaws. I have read several Wentworths I considered flawed too, but they always had elements that interested me and kept me returning to her books.

      I used to have the dismissive attitude toward her books you get from some male critics (love stories, blah!), but I think for Barzun to say her work is trite and "girlish" is unfair. Her books may lack the plotting finesse of Christie (although I thought Stay had a good plot), but I think there is some interesting stuff going on in them. John is right that there is a formula there, but it's an interesting formula (and so much series fiction does rely on formula).

      Interesting point about Crofts and Inspector French. Auden, you know, picked him as one of the great detectives. Of course we know as well about Pessoa and Eliot. I think his example was very well-known among readers of English detective fiction back then.

  6. By the way, I notice all the comments so far are from men. "Four Men Discussing Patricia Wentworth" makes a good indie film title, eh?