Moonlit foggy night in Yorkshire Dales.pasture
Artillery Row Books

Murders for September

Past and future killings

Grey Mask (1928) is a conventional and not exactly brilliant opening to what became a highly successful series, the 32 detective novels featuring Maud Silver, a professional private detective who moves in establishment circles. Written by Patricia Wentworth, already a very much-published author, Grey Mask clearly did not set her a new standard, because the next Miss Silver, The Case Is Closed, did not appear until 1937 and, in the meantime, she had produced many other novels, including those in the Benbow Smith series.

In a theme familiar to 1920s’ readers — not least, but not only, those of Buchan and Christie —- we have a sinister conspiracy within the elite: “‘People are always mad when they run counter to the established order. I’ve been very successfully mad for twenty years.’ …. some good red-hot Communist stuff.” Grey Mask offers the sort of account satirised by P.G. Wodehouse (1931), a novel that can be underplayed as his standard inimitable characters are absent:

He had placed the bearded man now. He saw all. Quite obviously this must be The Sniffer, the mysterious head of the great Cocaine Ring which was causing Scotland Yard so much concern. As for the grey-moustached one, he would be an accomplice in high places, a Baronet of good standing, or perhaps a well-thought-of Duke, on whose reputation no suspicion of wrongdoing had ever rested. And his unmistakable agitation must have been caused by the shock of meeting The Sniffer in a place like this [the Berkeley], where his [false] beard might come unstuck at any moment and betray him.

‘Go Back to the underground cellar in Limehouse, where you are known and respected.’

The recipient of this supposed advice is of course Godfrey, Lord Biskerton, son and heir to the 6th Earl of Hoddesdon, who is disguised in order both to keep an eye on his fiancée and so as to avoid his many creditors.

Although the inheritance aspect of Grey Mask is original, the plot as a whole is weak and even I guessed the villain. Yet, the book is worth reading for its deployment of Maud Silver (although her ability is not explained), and also for the sense of social change. Miss Canterbury comes into the hat shop where the heroine works:

‘I don’t care about these hats that hide the ears – they wallow you up so. I remember a most charming hat I had before the war, trimmed with shaded tulle and ostrich feathers. I wore it to the Deanery garden-party, and it was much admired.… the tulle was put on in big bows…. It’s really very disappointing not to be able to get an ordinary black hat with feathers in Sloane Street.’

The Case Is Closed (1937), the second of the Miss Silver series, is recognisably better than Grey Mask. Lonesome Road (1939), the third, is a further improvement. Maud Silver is more to the fore, and the plot is like an Agatha Christie, with a closed family group and a dangerous clifftop walk, although adders in the bed are somewhat more dramatic.

Turning to a different novelist:

‘Lavinia’s sister – Emma – married my father when I was little. That’s all. Mother – Emma, that is -practically surrounded him, if the truth must be told. He didn’t have a chance. You see, she brought up Lavinia, and it was a frightful shock to her when Vinnie upped and did something on her own. Especially anything so outré as becoming a best-seller. Emma looked round to see what else she could lay hands on that would do to go broody about, and there was Father, stranded with a baby daughter, and simply asking to be arrested. So she became Emma Garrowby, and my mother. I never think of her as my “step,” because I don’t remember any other. When my father died, mother came to live at Trimmings with Aunt Lavinia, and when I left school I took over the job of her secretary.’

So, are you following? And it gets worse. To Love and Be Wise (1950) is not one of Josephine Tey’s best books. There is a confused plot among the literati, beginning with a publisher’s sherry party for poseurs, and the improbable Detective-Inspector Grant turns up with his literary interests and the appreciation that “life was entirely constructed of compensations.” There are few, alas, to note in this book.

Reviewers of detective novels focus on the here and now

Reviewers of detective novels focus on the here and now, or rather the forthcoming and those pushed by publishers. It is wiser to let a little time go by and not to be over-impressed by the hype of the moment; easier then to appreciate that devices used apparently with some success may in fact be hackneyed, plots silly, and characterisation one-dimensional, as, for example, with The Thursday Murder Club.

The perspective of time offers an opportunity to (re-)consider Julia Chapman’s Dales Detective Series, published by Pan. Date With Death (2017, £8.99), the first, introduces the leading characters, Samson O’Brien and Delilah Metcalfe, the troubled personnel of respectively the Dales Detective Agency and the Dales Dating Agency. James Herriot very briefly turns up as the local vet, but this is not the Yorkshire Dales of All Creatures Great and Small, nor the measured murder of E.C.R. Lorac’s Lunedale. Instead, amidst well-observed writing that captures small-town life and the nature of the terrain, there are a significant number of deaths apparently relating to speed-dating. The number and explanation are somewhat far-fetched, but the characterisation is good, as is the discussion of the problems of being young women in that culture. The relationship of the leading characters is handled well and the book becomes a page-turner. This was an effective start of a series that very much captured its pays and people.

The second novel, Date With Malice (2017, £8.99), continues only a month later, and with the Dales again offering humour as well as cruelty — “he wasn’t some tourist to be fooled by the blue skies above.” Not as arresting or well-sustained as Date With Death, but worth reading. I did not anticipate the solution.

Looking around at the plots of the present, there are so many opportunities for new developments that it is interesting to contemplate the likely assessment of current practicalities for murder. Drones, for example, bring opportunities for surveillance but now also killing. Proximity is not necessary. For motive, the world of transsexualism offers possibilities for murders of anger and revenge, and for reveals of many types. The range of slaughter will include anger by family members, unwitting suitors, unwilling partners, and so on. This plot vein will probably be worked through relatively speedily. It will certainly offer new challenges for the critics. Who dares suggest implausibility in this cultural battlefield?

As an instance of present contingencies, Covid is part of the backdrop to a number of recent detective novels, including Peter May’s The Night Gate (Riverrun, 2021, £8.99). This imaginative tale draws together two murders in France, in 1944 and 2020, and has art as a common strand. The writing is pedestrian and the narrative often plodding. There is too much of the “She canted her head and raised one eyebrow, which was enough to force him out of his chair to slope off to his bedroom, hands pushed deep into his pockets”, or ‘She knew nothing at all about this man. And yet he, it seemed, knew all about her – or, at least, exactly where to find her. Dark eyebrows furrowed over warm brown eyes.” Some of the descriptions simply do not work, for example that of the old town of Würzburg as “a shambles of red roofs and spires.” There are many better recent works, or, at the very least, very many better written ones.

For those who want a fictional account of Paris in World War Two, Alan Furst offers far more in understanding, writing, characterisation, and style, and, for rivalries among the Germans, the same is true of Philip Kerr.

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