Ever since I learned that Patricia Wentworth wrote mystery novels that don't feature her detective Miss Maud Silver (I think first from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock), I have been keeping an eye out for them. When I stopped in at my beloved Murder by the Book the other day, I was thrilled to find several shelves of the recent reprints from Dean Street Press. This was the first time I have seen any of them in print, and I was glad to see a list of all the titles. I hadn't realized that some of them feature Miss Silver's frequent collaborators Frank Abbott and Ernest Lamb of Scotland Yard. Nor did I know just how many stand-alone books Patricia Wentworth wrote!
Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness recently wrote about one of them, Who Pays the Piper?, which sounds like a good one. But it wasn't on the shelves - not that I wasn't spoiled for choice. I was trying to restrain myself, so I only bought two to start with, this one from 1945 and The Dower House Mystery (published in 1925). I didn't remember at the time that this was the very book that Jane had written about.
As it turns out, it was a lucky choice. I think it's one of the best I've read by Patricia Wentworth, and an excellent example of a Golden Age mystery. It opens as Carey Silence steps up into the dock, to face the charge of murdering her relative Honoria Maquisten. The story then moves back to introduce us to Carey, a young woman just out of the hospital, recovering from a German air attack that killed her employer. She hasn't fully recovered, and with no job and no resources, the offer of a place to stay from her distant relative Mrs. Maquisten is very welcome. Carey isn't the only family connection living in the old house at Maitland Square, nor the only one dependent on the old lady's generosity. Mrs. Maquisten is generous, but she also enjoys holding her money over her young relatives' heads, re-writing her will on a regular basis. The arrival of an anonymous letter one day puts her in a rage. A summons to her solicitor follows, and an announcement to the family that one of them will be finally cut out the next day. Instead, the next day finds her dead, and Carey Silence accused of her murder.
I realized part-way through the book that I was subconsciously waiting for Miss Silver to arrive. I know just how she would have insinuated herself into the house and made herself at home. I did worry for a bit how the case would be solved without her. And then I realized that while I had some idea how the story would turn out, if Miss Silver were on the case, Patricia Wentworth might have written an entirely different type of story here. In none of the Miss Silver stories I have read so far has the main protagonist been the criminal (or the victim, for that matter).
One of the main differences I found in this story was how much of it focused on the trial itself. We experience it from Carey's point of view, standing in the dock, realizing that her life is at stake, in the hands of twelve men and women. I thought this part was very well done. It reminded me of one of my favorite Peter Wimsey stories, Strong Poison. Carey is as lucky as Harriet Vane in having a strong advocate at hand, a large American cousin named Jefferson Stewart. It's too bad she couldn't have Sir Impey Biggs for the defense!
I also enjoyed the brief biographical sketch of Patricia Wentworth that introduces the book. It mentions the historical fiction that she published before turning to crime. It might be interesting to find those books. I know I'll be adding more of these new reprints to my shelves before too long.