Friday, 19 September 2014

Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth

published 1955


[She] bought a very smart black autumn model suit with the new skirt and a most becoming shoulder line. She liked colours herself, and the brighter the better, but when all was said and done nothing set a fair girl off like black, and men fell for it every time. She could wear it at the inquest and at the funeral, and it would be just the thing for town. She supposed she had better have a hat – just a twist of something – and some veiling. A veil could be very becoming, only it mustn’t hide her hair.

She brought all the things home with her and tried them on again in her own room. Sometimes things were a ghastly disappointment when you did that, but these looked even better than they had in the shop. Good clothes gave you a pull when you were looking for a job, and with an off-white blouse and something in the lapel there wouldn’t be any need to look like a walking funeral.


observations: This is – a stock figure in a certain kind of murder story, Christie was good at these - the devastated widow of a much older man, trying to cope with her bereavement. She was about to be divorced from him and lose her cushy number, and she was plainly common, come up from the lower classes. Her grief is controllable. But – is she also a murderer and poison-pen-letter writer?


I’ve been looking at poison pen mysteries for Poison Pen week and a list, and this is pretty much the ur-text – a village, a lot of scandal, motives and possibilities for absolutely everyone, and annoying old bat Miss Silver come to investigate. The cover of this edition sums the book up beautifully:






Many Golden Age detective stories flag around the middle – this one is the opposite with a very good atmosphere of a central wedding that is about to go wrong (but exactly how?) and a lot of moodiness and flouncing. On the other hand, far too much time is spent proving to us that the various deaths are not accidental. In real life that might be necessary, but I think the readers have guessed already.

As in the recent Ashenden there is one of those characters who has a ‘thankless’, highly dangerous and secret job, meant to be some kind of spying or James Bondery. As in Moving Finger, there is a man who lives alone, and a character called Barton. The village is Tilling, as in some of the Mapp and Lucia books.

In any other kind of book the detective, Miss Silver, would be headed for a speedy death from TB, as she coughs all the time – what’s that about? I counted 13 occasions when she coughed, from a ‘faintly reproving’ one, through a ‘slightly reproving’ one to one that ‘conveyed the impression that she was being discreet.’

Also, we are given far too much information about what she is knitting. She gets through several garments during her visit, including this - 'I am making a twin set for my niece’s little girl. The jumper is finished. This is the cardigan.’ (The picture to the left is a pattern from the excellent Free Vintage Knitting site, should you want to make it.)


The book reminded me why I enjoy a Wentworth from time to time, but don’t seek them out. Robert Barnard, in his excellent book on Agatha Christie, says that one of the differences between the two writers is that there are always some characters in Wentworth who are automatically excluded from suspicion – basically the young lovers – and that this is most certainly not true of AC. Once this has been pointed out you realize what a good perception it is, and you can easily divide other writers according to this split.

More poison pen all over the blog at the moment, and you can click on the label below to see the entries.

The main picture is from the Dovima is divine phtotostream – I use this resource a lot, and a) am really grateful to Christine for the wonderful pictures and b) should point out again that the pictures are not all of the early supermodel Dovima, that is just the name of the collection.

18 comments:

  1. Moira, in terms of the title and cover, I think this is the most fitting entry for your series on Poison Pen Mysteries. Besides, it's a Golden Age, a fertile and experimental period for writers and one that I particularly like reading through.

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    1. Yes I think you might be right Prashant - I re-read several books for this, and each time I thought 'THIS one is the classic poison pen book', but I think this one really is!

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  2. Never yet read a Wentworth mystery Moira, sorry to say as this sounds very entertaining - I think have ETERNITY RING somewhere ...

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    1. You can't read too many of them, they are a bit same-y - makes you realize that the sainted Dame Agatha managed to vary things quite a lot. But a good harmless read. I have no idea which ones I have read, because they all blend into one after a bit....

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    2. You're so right on that. I bought a stack of them a while ago - thirty in fact! - which led my ex to brilliantly quip "Thirty pieces of Silver?"

      But yes. They very definitely run into one another. Maud Silver seems to have been teacher or governess to about 300 different people. The basic plot elements are so samey. They're good books but definitely very much of a type.

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    3. Have long gaps between reading them is the answer I think. I do enjoy one now and again. Yes, the endless former students and relations of friends: I suppose there has to be a way to shoehorn her into the case. And then - Ethel and Gladys, such old-fashioned names. Wentworth couldn't have known when she was choosing them how very much they would suggest the era of writing....

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  3. Moira - Very perceptive post (as ever). Some of the Patricia Wentworth novels are quite good, and you're right that she can create a solid atmosphere effectively. But even so.... Still, I always like that particular GA premise (village, scandal, lots of suspects, etc...). And now I think of it, there's a theme in several crime fiction novels of the young widow of a much older man. Some time I'll have to explore that...

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    1. Thanks for kind words Margot. And they are good solid mysteries - just they tend not to catch fire, or become very memorable, they're not ones you tend to be pushing on your friends saying 'you must read this.' I'd love to read your thoughts on crime book widows.

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  4. Not sure if she sits in the stacks or not, I will have to check my disorganised sheet!

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    1. Can't somehow see it unless you bought it by accident - real old school village mysteries.

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  5. One of the Miss Silver books begins with an author's note about Miss Silver's cough - how she definitely isn't ill. It is quite a charming moment of, um, metatextuality, I guess. Ah, yes, here we are - from the start of The Catherine Wheel: "To those readers who have so kindly concerned themselves about Miss Silver’s health. Her occasional slight cough is merely a means of self-expression. It does not indicate any bronchial affection. She enjoys excellent health. P.W."

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    1. Oh Vicki that's wonderful, thanks so much for sharing that with us. One up to Patricia Wentworth, not going to take any nonsense from the likes of me trying to be clever...

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  6. I looked at this one earlier in the year, here: http://noah-stewart.com/2014/06/06/poison-in-the-pen-by-patricia-wentworth-1954/ and I agree, this is pretty much the essential poison-pen mystery.
    As I have come to see it, in GAD, there are two types of these mysteries; ones where someone is actually sending vituperative anonymous letters and has to kill when about to be revealed, and ones where someone is using the idea of a poison pen to conceal his/her own murder plot. Funny how the real thing comes up so seldom, but then the second type is more clever for the reader to discern. I like both kinds; it makes for a nice change in GAD from the wealthy elderly person who quarrels with everyone and then announces he's changing his will!
    I'm not sure if I agree 100% with Robert Barnard; occasionally in Wentworth the raffish and dissolute suitor for the innocent heiress's hand IS the killer and not just there to win out in the end against the boring but honest squire's son in the marriage sweepstakes. I have one in mind from 1952 that I won't name. But by and large, yes, if you are a beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes in Wentworth, you are automatically not guilty. The character reversal that underlies this particular book is about as clever as Wentworth gets.
    I like how you've used this linking device of the poison pen to take us through a bunch of different authors -- much appreciated!!

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    1. Thanks for this Noah - I really enjoyed reading your blogpost on this one, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the book. You make some great points there, and of course I liked your look at Scilla's clothes - in fact she makes the same mistakes as Joanna in Moving Finger (my post earlier this week) but Scilla doesn't get let off the way Joanna does. I like your analysis above too, adding to our understanding of the genre....

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  7. I have a wonderful Green Door mystery edition of this one and I had been thinking of reading it soon. I have not read a Miss Silver book in a long time. Thanks for reminding me. Very nice post, and the comments are interesting too.

    I am off to the book sale in a very few minutes. Actually off to eat lunch with husband and son first, then I will be fueled for looking at a lot of books.

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    1. I do hope you read it soon Tracy, and tell me what you think. And good luck at the book sale - we'll want to see some pictures of the haul!

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  8. I like the black suit without the white at the neck or the gloves. Classic black, beautiful lines and the hint of jewelry makes it for me.

    We New Yorkers are known to wear black as a matter of daily life. One advantage: one can wear it to work and then afterwards -- and smudges and stains do not show!

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    1. The gloves are probably a step too far these days, but I quite like a touch of white around the edges. Anyway, there's no doubt about it, black is smart and practical in most circumstances.

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