Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sorting It Out:The Crime Novels of Patricia Wentworth

Readers of this blog will know that I'm an admirer of the crime fiction of premier English cozy mystery writer Patricia Wentworth (1877-1961). As such, I was pleased to have the chance to write an introduction last year to the Dean Street Press edition of all of her mysteries without series sleuth Miss Silver, which had rather languished during the more than half-century that the Miss Silver mysteries carried on proudly in paperback.

I think the Silverless books had been unjustly neglected, though I must admit that Miss Silver unquestionably has cast a spell over fans of vintage English mystery, particularly in its more "cozy" guise.  Later today I'm going to take a look at The Gazebo (1956), one of the later Silvers, published when the author was nearly eighty.

I thought in the meantime I might list all of the Wentworth crime novels (65 altogether), with their various series characters, as it all can get pretty confusing.  This list is based on the excellent Cooper & Pike, Collecting Detective Fiction (2nd ed., 1994).

Mysteries without Miss Silver
1. The Astonishing Adventures of Jane Smith (1923)
2. The Red Lacquer Case (1924)
3. The Annam Jewel (1924)
4. The Dower House Mystery ((1925)
5. The Black Cabinet (1925)
6. The Amazing Chance (1926)
7. Hue and Cry (1927)
8. Anne Belinda (1927)
9. Will O'the Wisp (1928)
10. Fool Errant (1929)
11. The Coldstone (1930)
12. Beggar's Choice (1930)
13. Kingdom Lost (1930)
14. Danger Calling (1931)
15. Nothing Venture (1932)
16. Red Danger (1932) (Red Shadow in the US)
17. Seven Green Stones (1933) (Outrageous Fortune in the US)
18. Walk with Care (1933)
19. Fear by Night (1934)
20. Devil-in-the-dark (1934) (Touch and Go in the US)
21. Red Stefan (1935)
22. Blindfold (1935)
23. Dead or Alive (1935)
24. Hole and Corner (1936)
25. Down Under (1937)
26. Run! (1938)
27. Mr. Zero (1938)
28. The Blind Side (1939)
29. Rolling Stone (1940)
30. Who Pays the Piper? (1940) (Account Rendered in the US)
31. Unlawful Occasions (1941) (Weekend with Death in the US)
32. Pursuit of a Parcel (1942)
33. Silence in Court (1945)

Miss Silver Mysteries
1. Grey Mask (1928)
2. The Case Is Closed (1937)
3. Lonesome Road (1939)
4. In the Balance (1941) (Danger Point in the UK)
5. The Chinese Shawl (1943)
6. Miss Silver Deals with Death (1943) (Miss Silver Intervenes in the UK)
7. The Clock Strokes Twelve (1944)
8. The Key (1944)
9. She Came Back (1945) (The Traveller Returns in the US)
10. Pilgrim's Rest (1946)
11. Latter End (1947)
12. Wicked Uncle (1947) (Spotlight in the UK)
13. Eternity Ring (1948)
14. The Case of William Smith (1948)
15. Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949)
16. The Catherine Wheel (1949)
17. The Brading Collection (1950)
18. Through the Wall (1950)
19. The Ivory Dagger (1951)
20. Anna, Where Are You? (`1951)
21. The Watersplash (1951)
22. Ladies' Bane (1952)
23. Out of the Past (1953)
24. Vanishing Point (1953)
25. The Silent Pool (1954)
26. The Benevent Treasure (1954)
27. Poison in the Pen (1955)
28. The Listening Eye (1955)
29. The Gazebo (1956)
30. The Fingerprint (1956)
31. The Alington Inheritance (1958)
32. The Girl in the Cellar (1961)

As you can see, for two decades, from about 1923 through 1942, non-Silver mysteries predominated. the for the next two decades, from 1943 to 1961, Silvers completely dominated the field, the only non-Silver, Silence in Court, coming very early in the period. The most prolific period of Silver mysteries was from 1947 to 1956, when 20 of them appeared, an average of two a year.

I think it's true that the last two or three Silver titles--particularly the very last, The Girl in the Cellar--are weaker than the rest.  Wentworth's steadfast American publisher, Lippincott, who had published all of Wentworth's book between 1926, beginning with The Amazing Chance, and 1958, declined to publish The Girl in the Cellar, surely a bad sign.  Miss Silver had been tremendously popular in the US, where Lippincott published the true Silver firsts.  Hodder & Stoughton, one of England's premier crime fiction publishers, was even more loyal to Wentworth than Lippincott, publishing all of her books between 1925 (The Dower House Mystery) and 1961.

But wait!  There were additional series sleuths, some of them appearing without Miss Silver and some of them sometimes appearing with her.  Evidently all of Wentworth's sleuths operated within the same fictional world, which is kind of neat, if you're one of those people who always wanted Miss Marple, say, to meet Hercule Poirot in the Christie books.  So here's a further breakdown:

Fool Errant (Benbow Smith)
Danger Calling (Smith, Frank Garrett)
Walk with Care (Smith, Garrett)
Dead or Alive (Garrett)
Down Under (Smith)
The Blind Side (Ernest Lamb, Frank Abbott)
Rolling Stone (Garrett)
Who Pays the Piper? (Lamb, Abbott)
In the Balance (Silver, Randal March)
Pursuit of a Parcel (Garrett, Lamb, Abbott)

All the following with Silver as well:
The Chinese Shawl (March)
Miss Silver Deals with Death (Lamb, Abbott)
The Key (Lamb, Abbott)
She Came Back (Lamb, Abbott)
Pilgrim's Rest (March, Abbott)
Latter End (Lamb, Abbott)
Wicked Uncle (Lamb, Abbott)
Eternity Ring (Lamb, Abbott)
The Case of William Smith (Lamb, Abbott)
Miss Silver Comes to Stay (March)
The Catherine Wheel (March, Lamb, Abbott)
The Brading Collection (March)
Through the Wall (March)
The Ivory Dagger (Lamb, Abbott)
Anna, Where Are You? (Abbott)
The Watersplash (Lamb, Abbott)
Ladies' Bane (Abbott)
Out of the Past (Lamb, Abbott)
Vanishing Point (Lamb, Abbott)
The Silent Pool (March)
The Benevent Treasure
Poison in the Pen (March, Abbott)
The Listening Eye (Lamb, Abbott)
The Gazebo (Abbott)
The Fingerprint (Abbott)
The Alington Inheritance (Abbott)
The Girl in the Cellar (Abbott)

So!  We have a total of 4 appearances for Benbow Smith, 5 for Frank Garrett, 9 for Randal March, 16 for Ernest Lamb and 24 for Frank Abbott.  But at 32 appearances Miss Silver reigns supreme over even her favored attendant males, March, Lamb and Abbott. (She appears without any of these these courtiers in 5 books, for early ones and one later one.)

Pursuit of a Parcel is key in connecting all of Wentworth's sleuths. Through Frank Garrett and the team of Lamb/Abbott we can link Miss Silver with the same fictive world as that in which resides Benbow Smith. Had those two only appeared directly in Parcel as well, it would have been a real mystery sleuth mashup: House of Wentworth, if you will.


  1. Oh for some of these fabulous mystery stories to find themselves back in print!

    1. David, the good news is they are all back in print, though Mysterioue Press and Dean Street Press!

  2. To be picky, Wentworth had four books published by Cassell in 1932-1933: Red Danger, Nothing Venture, Seven Green Stones, Walk with Care - she then went back to Hodder

    1. Thanks, do you know the reason for the short switch?

    2. No idea. I do know that the Cassell titles are harder to find than the Hodder ones of the period

  3. I could not believe my luck when I came across 14 Miss Silver books last year in a used bookstore in San Antonio, Texas!