I've finally been formally introduced to the venerable Miss Silver. I like her, and as so often happens in these situations--I'm wondering whyever did I wait to read a Miss Silver mystery? She seems a little formidable in her knowledge and canny ability to untangle a mystery. She reminds me a lot of another favorite and well respected sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. Considering the love and admiration Miss Marple garners from so many readers, that can only be a good thing.
Given the choice I always like to start a new mystery series at the beginning. I realize first books are often not the best in a long run of books, and the author is usually just building the foundation and setting the scene, getting things ready for even bigger things to happen later when the stories really pick up momentum. But Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth, the first Miss Silver mystery (published in 1928 putting it smack dab in the Golden Age of detective fiction) is a good solid mystery, quite enjoyable really, even if Miss Silver only makes brief appearances in the story.
As a matter of fact Maud Silver doesn't even take the stage until page 74. A first impression:
"Miss Silver sat in front of a pad of pink blotting-paper. She was a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-colored hair done in a large bun at the back of her head. She inclined her head slightly, but did no offer to shake hands."
She has a knack for getting more information out of her clients than they seem willing to give and expects complete trust from them. Seated behind her massive writing table with a stack of different-colored exercise books (to keep track of her cases), her knitting seems to be always close at hand. In Grey Mask I think she knitted at least one pair of socks, baby bootees and maybe even a little baby sweater (if I recall correctly). She is always cool, calm and collected, usually with a faint, fleeting smile playing on her lips. I don't yet know much about her back story, only that she is a trained "sleuthess" who operates with no fuss or scandal and the utmost discretion.
In Grey Mask Maud Silver is hired by Charles Moray who has been away for a number of years after he was jilted by his fiancé Margaret Langton right before their wedding. Not lacking in funds he decided the only way to get over the failed relationship was through exotic travels and adventures abroad. But when he returns home more adventures, but of a decidedly sinister nature, are in store for him. He discovers the family home is being used by a criminal gang. Hiding in an unused bedroom he overhears plans for a plot to get rid of an heiress. Most devastating, however, is that Margaret seems to be involved.
My edition of the book has the cover with the angry young man on it (above), which fits the story perfectly. Charles is bitter over what happened and disappointed in Margaret. All too willing to take his anger out on her, they nonetheless become involved once more in trying to protect Margot Standing from being murdered. Her father has recently died in a boating accident. Margot, just eighteen, stands to inherit a small fortune unless it can be proved her parents were unwed at the time of her birth. Margot is a beautiful, silly, empty-headed young woman (a flapper!) who is too fond of chocolates, and cannot keep a secret to save her life (almost literally). She's mostly concerned with receiving marriage proposals, falls for Charles and cannot understand why Margaret is still unmarried at the ripe old age of twenty-five.
For a cozy mystery, and one with a knitting-needle wielding sleuth at that, the story moves remarkably quickly. Wentworth knows how to plot and move her mystery along at a nice steady pace. There are lots of good period details, though they are not in the least intrusive, though I think "frightfully" must appear on every other page (particularly as exclaimed by Margot Standing). I'm going to have to place Miss Silver up there as a favorite sleuth. Although I am now reading the first Inspector Gamache mystery, Still Life, by Louise Penny (another, so far, really excellent book), I am already looking forward to reading more books by Patricia Wentworth. She wrote over thirty Miss Silver novels. Next up is The Case is Closed. I'm curious to see how Miss Silver develops as a character and learning more about her.
By the way, a number of you recommended Patricia Wentworth to me, which is appreciated. And most recently Kathy chose her as her lost in the stacks recommendation! The Miss Silver books are also available as ebooks with those cool vintage-y looking monochromatic covers.