Classic Crime

Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth was the pseudonym of Dora Amy Dillon Turnbull, nee Elles who was born in India in 1878. She published her first novel in 1910, ‘A Marriage Under the Terror’, set in the French Revolution, which won the Melrose prize. It was the start of a prolific writing career although she was best known for her crime series featuring former governess turned private investigator, Miss Silver. The first of these, ‘The Grey Mask’ was published in 1928, two years before Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple made her first appearance in ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’. These two protagonists share many of the same characteristics – love of knitting, listening to village gossip and in cahoots with the national if not local police. Strangely enough, both writers had a ten year gap before re-visiting their elderly detectives (Miss Silver – ‘The Grey Mask’ 1928/’The Case is Closed’ 1937. Miss Marple – ‘The Thirteen Problems’ 1932/’The Body in the Library’ 1942).

However, Wentworth’s books often mix romance and crime and the large country house is very much a staple of her fiction. Wentworth was a prolific writer who produced 32 books featuring Miss Silver and 34 books outside of the series. She died in January 1961.

Review: Poison in the Pen

Despite reading crime fiction for many years I had not heard of Patricia Wentworth until recently introduced to her body of work. Most of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books are again readily available as Hodder have re-issued the Miss Silver series with a range of delectable covers that hark back to the forties and fifties. ‘Poison in the Pen’ is a classic example of the joy of reading the author. The setting is Tilling Green, an archetypal 1950s village with an Anglican church which is the centre of village life, a hard-up lord of the manor and full to the brim of old ladies with nothing to do all day than gossip. This latter feature is a bit of a cliché but interestingly Wentworth makes reference in the book to the fact that there were two million more women than men in 1950s Britain, a fact that I was unaware of. Presumably this was the after effects of the First World War which took place forty years earlier.

The plot revolves around a mysterious suicide that takes place after a series of poison pen letters are received by various villagers. Miss Silver comes to investigate and after a notable villager is killed, suspicion falls on those close to the local manor house where heiress Valentine Grey mysteriously calls off her wedding.
In ‘Poison in the Pen’ we see all the hallmarks that made the character of Miss Silver rightly famous. She is a more down-at-heel Miss Marple, wearing her ‘second-best’ hat and old winter coat. The book is very well written with wonderful descriptions of the village characters, particularly the lower class lady of the Manor wearing ‘imitation tartan in which the predominant colours were scarlet, yellow and green. Perhaps it was all these colours that gave her a curiously hard look.’ I don’t think that Miss Marple was quite as catty and it is interesting how the two female characters began to diverge after their initial similarities.

If you love Agatha Christie, you must try Patricia Wentworth. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Or if you read Wentworth years ago, now is a good time to re-discover these fabulous mysteries.

An abridged version of this review appeared on Sarah's blog, 'Crimepieces'

Reviewed by: S.W.

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