Tuesday, 24 January 2017

TNC Firsts – the first appearance of Miss Maud Silver

 
As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday NightFirsts logo bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each, we have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.

In Week 1 I looked at the first Dr Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr, Hag’s Nook.

In Week 2 I blogged on the first book by American writer Mary McMullen.

In Week 3 I went back in time to look at a classic of German literature, Kleist’s Marquise of O.

This week I decided to investigate the first appearance of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver. So with just a delicate cough and a rattle of my knitting needles, here we go:
 
 

Grey Mask

published 1928/29
 
Grey Mask

Margot went on walking, and the aimless thoughts kept on coming and going. The thick moisture that filled the air with fog began to condense and come down in rain. Soon she was very wet. The rain became heavier; it soaked through her blue serge coat and began to drop from the brim of her hat. The coat had a collar of grey fur. The rain collected on it and trickled down the back of her neck. Only that afternoon Margot had written to Stephanie that there was something frightfully romantic about being a penniless orphan. It didn’t feel a bit romantic now; it felt cold, and frightening, and desperately miserable…

The lamplight showed Margaret a girl with drenched fair hair hanging in wispy curls. The girl was very pretty indeed; even with a tear-stained face and limp hair she was verypretty. Her dark blue coat was beautifully cut, and drenched though it was, Margaret could both feel and see that the stuff had been expensive. It had a grey fox collar, draggled and discouraged-looking, but a fine skin for all that.

commentary: Miss Silver arrived fully formed in Grey Mask, with one interesting exception. She is an old lady who investigates, she’s marvellous, she coughs all the time and is knitting some socks. The only thing missing is there is no mention of her past as a governess – this must be first revealed in a later book.

She is quite daring and dashing, following people, and making an unauthorized (though not illegal – she has her reputation to think of) entry into a house. She has no fears about searching a house where a mad murderer might be on the loose.

The plot has a rather tiresome master-criminal (the Grey Mask himself) and an organization which specializes in nasty crimes, and the villainous members are all referred to by their numbers (for goodness sake…). This is rather reminiscent of the Agatha Christie books of the time, and to my surprise I started wondering if Wentworth was doing it better. No-one is quite as annoying as Tommy and Tuppence are…

There are several tropes which recur in many other of the Silver books. There is a young couple who parted just before they were due to wed – this is so frequent in the oeuvre (occasionally just after the wedding) that I wonder if it reflects something that happened to Wentworth. As ever, they have been kept apart from some combo of pride, honour and shame; as ever the whole thing could have been solved by a reasonable conversation; and as ever the gentle reader has no time for any of this. In this case, ‘a breath of scandal would kill someone’ but a) was not the jilting and broken engagement enough scandal to do the same? And b) this particular character seems spectacularly robust in every other way. And c) there never seems to be any idea that love will conquer, or that you might trust and rely on your affianced – that he or she is exactly whom you should be telling about whatever nightmare is descending.

We have a woman plunged into mourning wondering how she will look, will she suit black? – turns up in many a Wentworth book, but I always enjoy it anyway.

There are some silly-ass talkers and silly girls, and our heroine, Margaret, fears that the hero, Charles, will fall for a young girl – but of course he won’t. In this particular aspect the book resembles those Georgette Heyer Regency romances in which the sensible, sibling-like couple look after a young idiot, and eventually realize it’s each other they love. The silly girl, Margot, is actually quite an entertainment.

There is an interesting legal point about something called marriage by declaration – I had never heard of this, and you’d think that although I know little of marriage law, it would have come up in many other crime stories to inform me…

Miss Silver coughs 15 times by my calculation.

Margaret works in a hatshop, and one of her customers, who has no relation to the plot, says this:
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.
This is an older lady, and in a couple of paragraphs we realize that what she wants isn’t a new hat, it’s to be the young woman at a garden party again. A lot of Wentworth is full of cliché and stereotypes, written by numbers almost, but in just about every book there is at least one scene, or moment or conversation that is striking and memorable, charming or affecting, subtle and real.

I thought the ending was rather rushed – I wanted more detail of what had happened in the past and what was happening now. But overall, a good effort, and you can see there are better things to come.

Interestingly, almost everyone in the book has a blue coat, including a baby Miss Silver is knitting for. And one of the criminal gang has ‘a blue serge coat’, just like Margot above. Serge is a rough fabric, far more suited to villains than young heiresses: I think Wentworth might have dropped serge in by mistake in the extract above. It is somewhat unlikely in what turns out to be a designer high fashion garment from Paris – and serge would have stood up better to the rain than this one did.

The fur-collared lady in the photograph is the actress Norma Shearer, and the picture is from Kristine’s photostream.


























22 comments:

  1. It's interesting, isn't it, Moira, how many GA tropes there are in this one. In some places, I agree, it is a bit silly. But there are a few great scenes in it. And I do like the house itself, the one Grey Mask has appropriated. Nice, creepy touches.

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    1. Yes, it was well worth settling in for a certain kind of read! She was a good writer right from the beginning.

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  2. I know I've read this one - I have a faint memory that Miss Silver has a rather incongrous office in this one with tubular steel furniture, or at least modern stuff rather than the full-blown Victorian trappings of the later books....

    I remember it because it seemed so unexpected and incongrous....

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    1. Oh I say. That's really bizarre, I just looked up Miss Silver on Wikipedia and didn't realise that there was a nine year gap between Grey Mask and then the next book she's in... and then there's quite a lot in a rush over the next 25 years....

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    2. Her office is almost empty, just chairs and desks and notebooks.
      And yes, I hadn't realized that either, about the gap, how very surprising.

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  3. Like Heyer for me Wentworth is quite a middle of the road sort of author (though probably preferable to Marsh). The romance element in the books can sometimes get a bit too predictable but at other times Wentworth really uses that aspect quite well. And I love how diligent you are, counting how many times Miss Silver coughs - sounds like she should go to the doctor!

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    1. I like them more than I used to - when I first read them I saw them as inferior Christies. But now I think they have their own charms.

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  4. I don't know why it is taking me so long to get to a Miss Silver book. I have a couple near the top of the stacks but I never get to them.

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    1. One of these days Tracy - I think you'll find it, at least, an easy read.

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  5. She coughs much less in The Gazebo!

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    1. I think it's important to keep a count going.

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  6. "A lot of Wentworth is full of cliché and stereotypes, written by numbers almost, but in just about every book there is at least one scene, or moment or conversation that is striking and memorable, charming or affecting, subtle and real."

    I agree, it keeps me coming back to her books.

    For what it's worth she wrote many more thrillers then Christie!

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    1. Yes, when she gets out of the shadow of Christie she looks much better.

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  7. I did run of steam with Patricia Wentworth after reading a lot at one time.
    The copy editor might have got rid of a few of those coughs. In my first novel the editor pointed out that people were forever gazing out of windows or clattering up the stairs!
    Doesn't Miss Marple do quite a bit of throat clearing, too?

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    1. I suppose we never notice our own over-used phrases! Now I will start noticing Miss Marples throat activity, thank you very much, AND I just coughed myself.

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  8. Norma Shearer is a beautiful woman, but 1930's hair/makeup did her no favors. She's so much prettier in candid home movies I've seen of her.

    I'd never heard of these mysteries, but they sound perfect for a cold winter's day reading.

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    1. That's exactly what they are, and they are shed-loads of them. You can't read them one after another, they are too similar, but sometimes they are just what you want.
      And now I'm off to look at photos of Norma Shearer.

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  9. Replies
    1. I bow to you, the queen of cough calculation and galloping consumption, but I try to do my little bit...

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  10. Moira: If she made an unauthorized but not illegal she would be the first fictional sleuth entering a home without consent that was not committing a break and entry. (Fine legal effort by you at distinguishing and justifying the entry. Almost the same phrasing as unlawful but not criminal.)

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    1. Thank you Bill - I wasn't sure if I was on shaky ground legally, how reassuring to know that a friendly lawyer has my back! I did like her distinction...

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  11. Many of her coughs are "hortatory," which is quite a word. I had to look it up.

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