I love prolific authors. Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and Ngaio Marsh basically got me through my teens and 20’s and taught me the ABC’s of classic mystery fiction. Yes, each of them had their share of clunkers, but, by and large, their output was brilliant. Of course, other mystery writers made their way onto my bookshelves, some of them offering plenty of titles (Rex Stout) and others with a relatively small bibliography (Christianna Brand, Dashiell Hammett). I enjoyed them all!
Becoming a blogger of classic mysteries has allowed me both to revisit old favorites and to discover “new” authors, like Helen McCloy, Harriet Rutland, and Josephine Tey, and there are still many more to uncover. One source of inspiration is offered every month by Rich Westwood at Past Offenses: he selects a year and invites readers to explore the crime fiction from both page and screen that made the year special. For March, Rich selected a special year indeed: 1937 has been suggested by JJ at The Invisible Event as the nexus of all that is great about the Golden Age of Detection. How fitting, then, for me to try for the first time a classic author who published that year. There’s always the chance that the writer might become “the new thing” for me! But there’s also a risk! Can you imagine someone coming upon Rich’s site, noting that he has picked 1970 as the year, and deciding that this would be as good a time to try that Agatha Christie person that everyone keeps talking about. So he picks up Passenger to Frankfurt – and a potential fan bites the dust!
Which brings me to Patricia Wentworth. Lots of people love Wentworth, but I have somehow avoided her charms for a very long time. Over a year ago, I picked up one of her books at a library sale to break my long-standing fast . . . and it sat mouldering on my TBR pile. What a marvelous coincidence to check the publishing date and find out that Wentworth’s The Case Is Closed was issued in 1937. And so I read it for Rich and for JJ. And I have a lot of questions! For starters, if 1937 really is the confluence of all the great things classic mystery fiction had to offer, why would Wentworth write this particular book? I know, she didn’t get the memo from JJ, but you would expect that most classic detective novelists would be writing at the top of their game during the year when their genre is supposed to be at the top of its game!!! And yet, this does not happen here. So I have to ask the Wentworth fans: is this what I should expect from the typical Miss Silver mystery, or has something gone awry with this particular title?
For her plot, Wentworth has chosen one of the classic tropes of mystery fiction: the innocent person on trial for – or convicted of – a murder they did not commit. (In another marvelous coincidence, my friend Margot Kinberg just published a fine post on this very subject.) This is a storyline that I enjoy. It forms the basis of many a Hitchcock film, and all the best writers have utilized it. Agatha Christie, my favorite author, has employed the “innocent man on trial” plot many times, and each instance is remarkably varied and clever, from “The Witness for the Prosecution” right down to Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Starting The Case Is Closed, I couldn’t help thinking about books I had loved by favorite authors, such as Christie’s Sad Cypress and Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window. A well-read reader can’t help but compare.
Both the Christie and the Dickson titles commence with prologues that immediately highlight the strengths of their respective authors. Sad Cypress begins in court, where Elinor Carlisle is standing trial for the murder of her aunt’s ward, Mary Gerrard:
“Elinor Katherine Carlisle. You stand charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?”
The Counsel for the Crown stands up and lays out the general case against Elinor, outlining the fact that nobody but Miss Carlisle had a. the motive and b. the opportunity to murder Mary Gerrard. All of this is filtered through Elinor’s consciousness: “The words stabbed through the thick enveloping blanket of (her) thoughts – pin-pricks through a heavy muffling veil . . . “ She looks over the court and sees the faces of those who will figure in the case and of “one particular face with a big black moustache and shrewd eyes. Hercule Poirot, his head a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, was watching her.”
From there, we move to a lengthy flashback that not only lays out a murder scene where it appears that Elinor and only Elinor could be the culprit – an impossible crime, if you will, unless Elinor is guilty – but it shows that, even in 1933, Christie was beginning to deepen the level characterization in her novels to fine effect.
The opening to The Judas Window is even better; in fact, it just might be one of John Dickson Carr’s best!
“On the evening of Saturday, January 4, a young man who intended to get married went to a house in Grosvenor Street to meet his future father-in-law. There was nothing remarkable about this young man, except that he was a little wealthier than most. Jimmy Answell was large, good-natured, and fair-haired. He was just such an easy-going sort as people like, and there was no malice in him. His hobby was the reading of murder mysteries, like your hobby and mine. He sometimes took too much to drink, and he sometimes made a fool of himself, even as you and I. finally, as heir to the estate of his late mother, he might be considered a very eligible bachelor indeed. It will be well to keep these facts in mind during the murder case of the painted arrow.”
The style of the Dickson novel is more light-hearted than the Christie, but there is nothing casual about the predicament into which Jimmy Answell gets himself. He enters Avery Hume’s study and is offered a drink. He admires the trophies for archery on Hume’s wall and then prepares to formally ask for Mary Hume’s hand in marriage. Suddenly, he feels dizzy and pitches forward, unconscious. When he awakens, Hume is lying dead on the floor. The door is locked on the inside, and there is no sign that Jimmy had ever been offered a (presumably drugged) cocktail. Mr. Answell is promptly arrested and put on trial for murder as the only possible culprit. Fortunately, he has hired the most outrageous – and effective – defense attorney/detective of them all: Sir Henry Merrivale.
As you can see, I’ve had luck reading books about innocent people on trial for murder before I came upon The Case Is Closed. So, how does Wentworth begin her version of this plotline?
“Hilary Carew sat in the wrong train and thought bitterly about Henry. It was Henry’s fault that she was in the wrong train – indisputably, incontrovertibly, and absolutely Henry’s fault, because if she hadn’t seen him stalking along the platform with that air, so peculiarly Henryish, of having bought it and being firmly determined to see that it behaved itself, she wouldn’t have lost her nerve and bolted into the nearest carriage.”
We seem to be in the same lighthearted territory as Dickson, as we establish the presence of our heroine, Hilary, who is on the outs with the dashing Captain Henry Cavendish. One thing I did know going into my first Wentworth was her emphasis on young romance. In a Miss Silver mystery, the young lovers are always innocent, and the sleuth is as focused on making true love right as in bringing a criminal to justice. So I figure we will get to see a lot of Hilary and Henry and that true love will win out in the end. This is the first in a series of non-surprises in a “mystery” completely lacking in surprise.
At the start of the novel, Geoffrey Grey has been convicted of murdering his wealthy uncle, Jeffrey Everton, and has been languishing in prison for the past year. His wife, Marion, is a mess, forced to go back to work as a fashion model for a boss who capitalizes on the murder case to get Marion jobs. It’s up to plucky cousin Hilary to come to the rescue. Hilary has been living with Marion to bolster her spirits, and she needs a project to distract herself from her broken engagement. What better plan than to prove Geoffrey’s innocence? The chance for this presents itself on the very wrong train Hilary has boarded, where she comes face to face with Mrs. Mercer, Jeffrey Everton’s former cook, whose testimony basically sealed the deal for Geoffrey Grey. Mrs. Mercer seems to be in the throes of a deep emotional crisis when she sees Hilary, and she garbles a number of things that suggest to the younger woman a guilty conscience. What is she hiding? According to the cook and her husband, the butler, Geoff and only Geoff had the opportunity to shoot his uncle in his study. How will Hilary break Mrs. Mercer’s testimony, free Geoff, and get her man back?
Christie and Carr both play essentially fair with the puzzle aspects of their novels, but they provide much more along with the puzzle. Both authors make fine use of the courtroom setting. The Judas Window is very, very funny in its depiction of Merrivale the barrister. The suspense over whether Jimmy will be freed is played up well, as Dickson first stacks the decks against him and then, card by card, topples the Crown’s evidence. The cast is small, and yet there is plenty of room for surprise. Christie’s cast is also pared down, yet she presents a compelling romantic quadrangle from which murder springs. The murder scene is deftly done, and if the revelation of the killer is not on a par with Roger Ackroyd, it is still a satisfying conclusion, presented as a series of testimonies from various witnesses, and nicely summed up by Poirot.
None of that happens in The Case Is Closed. For one thing, the case is closed, and characters use this tag line in nearly every conversation in the book. Early on, we are shown some of the testimony from Geoff’s trial, and most of the novel follows Hilary as she tracks down one servant after another to hear them repeat what they said at the trial. And repeat they do, over and over. And then Hilary visits Henry or sits down with Marion and repeats what she just heard repeated. If I were a drinking man, I would have downed a shot at every instance of information that was repeated and would have become very drunk indeed. For all this going over the same evidence, ultimately, it all boils down to . . . not very much! In the sense that everyone else has an alibi, the case against Geoff may resemble an “impossible” crime. But as each witness is approached, a bit of that airtight case crumbles until you have to ask yourself if anybody in the British legal system was doing their job during the investigation or the trial. Everybody’s evidence appears to have been taken at face value, yet nobody’s testimony stands up to the winsome charms of Hilary Carew, a girl with no particular spark of intelligence and a rather annoying sense of entitlement throughout.
We have another small cast here, and there is never any doubt as to who the good guys and the bad guys are. And since there is virtually no detection going on, I should let The Case Is Closed off the hook and state that this boils down not to being a thriller, more along the Tommy and Tuppence line, where Hilary gets into one scrape after another and Henry swoops in to rescue her. Except all the mishaps have a certain sameness, such as Hilary traveling to a distant community in search of something and always bumping into the same character. Every time Hilary and Henry reunite, their repartee is focused on their romance rather than on the case. Unfortunately, to my mind, Henry is too much of a chauvinist and Hilary too immature for me to care much about whether they make it as a couple; besides, given that this is Patricia Wentworth, their subsequent marriage seems to be a foregone conclusion and singularly lacking in suspense.
My next point: I’m puzzled as to why the author includes Miss Silver here at all. Her first entrance occurs halfway through, when she is hired by Henry to look into Mr. and Mrs. Mercer. After that, she barely appears until the end, when she unravels a case that really needed no unraveling. Throughout, she functions as a standard private eye, sitting in an office and taking down facts, with her knitting needles constantly clacking away. I would love to compare her to that queen of spinsters, Miss Jane Marple, but I need more information first. I know that Wentworth wrote thirty-two Miss Silver mysteries, while Christie only wrote a dozen Miss Marple novels, but I can’t think of a single Marple that I enjoyed less than The Case Is Closed! And Jane Marple strikes me as a far richer character with a more interesting set of skills than Miss Silver. I know, for instance, that Miss Marple works intuitively: she bases her deductions on her understanding of human nature and often refers to human parallels from her village of St. Mary Mead to analyze the character and motives of the suspects in any particular case. “People are alike all over, “ is Miss Marple’s watch cry. As far as I can tell from my first Wentworth, Miss Silver stalks about like a real private eye, makes phone calls and visits fine houses. And she knits. Oh God, how she knits!
As for the issue of the 1937 Confluence, not every classic author hit it out of the ballpark that year. True, Christie gave us a masterpiece, Death on the Nile, but she also produced Dumb Witness – not her best! And Carr gave us The Ten Teacups, which is far from a favorite of mine but was not at all bad. Marsh gave us one of her fine theatre mysteries, Vintage Murder, but Ellery Queen was definitely in transition with The Door Between. Still, all of these are conventional mysteries, well clued and clever of ending! Why would Wentworth write a breezy thriller in 1937 rather than a true whodunit? It appears that, this being only the second Miss Silver novel, Wentworth was still trying to find her way. The first title, Grey Mask, is evidently also more of a thriller than a conventional puzzle case. And then nine years had passed between Grey Mask and The Case Is Closed, during which Wentworth wrote sixteen other books. A cursory glance at these titles on Amazon suggests that the author was firmly planted in thriller territory for a good deal of her career. Still, I had been led to believe that the Miss Silver mysteries were more conventional whodunits. And let’s face it, by the second Miss Marple case, that old lady was a fully formed and fascinating character.
But, as I said, one book doesn’t tell us enough. So if you’re reading this and you’re a Miss Silver fan, (take note, Noah Stewart!) – I beg you to hearken to my plea! After The Case Is Closed, I am not disposed to seek out this particular spinster again, but I seriously suspect what I just read is not your typical Miss Silver mystery. Am I right? And if so, please point me to the titles you think I might enjoy!