I had a small stroke of luck a few weeks ago and found a handful of Patricia Wentworth titles in a charity shop that included a couple of my personal favourites; it seemed like an opportune time for some re-reading and reconsideration.
I’ve read The Chinese Shawl (1943) before, many times in fact since I first discovered the Miss Silver novels. Miss Silver for me has become a kind of “cup of warm cocoa”, a familiar world where all the young women are beautiful, all the young men are handsome and gallant, and Miss Silver solves everything while knitting and emitting the occasional hortatory cough. For those of you not familiar with Patricia Wentworth’s oeuvre, she wrote 32 novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a professional private detective, between 1928 and 1961. The novels usually have a romantic subplot where a nice young woman with long eyelashes finally hooks up with a wealthy young man and heads to the altar. I’ve written about Miss Silver before, and in quite some detail here in an analysis of Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949), so if you want my generalized look at all 32 novels that’s where to look.
My most recent re-reading of The Chinese Shawl produced a somewhat different thought pattern than my usual pleasant nostalgia, though, and I wanted to share it with you. Essentially I realized that over the years in my mind I have developed a kind of idealized mystery novel template in the back of my mind; something against which I hold up Golden Age mysteries and see where they fail to live up to my hoped-for experience. But when it occurred to me that I had never really tried to determine what that idealized mystery novel looked like, I knew I had the beginnings of an article for you.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, I’ll be revealing every crucial element of the above-captioned book, including the identity of the murderer and all relevant plot details. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this novel about?
Beautiful young Laura Fane comes up to London from the country in January, 1943 because it is soon to be her 21st birthday. We learn about some complicated family issues dating back decades, but in essence Laura inherited a house from her father that is being lived in by her father’s wealthy former fiancée, the formidable Agnes Fane — who was also the father’s cousin at the time of their engagement. Laura’s father broke it off after falling head over heels in love with Laura’s mother. Agnes then went out riding on her high-spirited horse, fell, and has spent the intervening years in a wheelchair. There has been a split in the family ever since; the proud and self-possessed Agnes never spoke to Laura’s father again.
Before he died, the month Laura was born, her father gave a 21-year lease of the house to Agnes. Agnes has lavished money and attention upon the place and paid Laura a considerable amount under the lease; now she wants to own the house. Laura meets Agnes’s adopted daughter, the strikingly beautiful Tanis Lyle, and learns that Agnes wants Laura to come and visit, heal the family breach, and sell the house to Agnes. Tanis is a classic villainess; she entraps young men and toys with their affections, then breaks their hearts and casts them aside. Agnes is completely devoted to Tanis, despite a failed marriage and a young son who remains conveniently “away”, and wants to leave her the house.
Laura also meets one of the many young men in Tanis Lyle’s orbit, the handsome young airman Carey Desborough, who is recovering from a crash and may not be able to fly again. Carey was once engaged to Tanis but she broke it off. As frequently happens in Wentworth novels, Carey and Laura fall immediately in love and are clearly on their way to the altar, but Tanis decides that, no, she hadn’t broken off the engagement after all.
When Laura arrives at the house that she’s never seen, it’s with the twin problems of not wanting to sell the house to Agnes and trying to find a way of marrying Carey Desborough without being called out by Tanis as a man-stealer. So there’s some tension in the household when Laura comes to stay.
The house has other inhabitants; the full-time dwellers are Agnes’s dull and dumpy cousin Lucy (chapter 4 starts off with a genealogical chart for anyone unable to follow the familial relationships), and Agnes’s long-time maid Perry and other staff, but there is a wing full of wartime evacuees and another house guest — Miss Silver, an old school-friend of Lucy and Agnes. Tanis has created a house party full of anxiety and jealousy among many of her suitors and their current romantic partners (when she re-announces her engagement to Carey, which is merely a ploy for this poisonous young woman to get her own way); when Tanis’s ex-husband shows up and makes a scene, the tension levels are raised even higher.
Laura has brought with her a family heirloom, an antique black and heavily embroidered Chinese shawl that she wears to dinner. She accidentally forgets to bring it upstairs with her one night; the next morning, Tanis is found dead in the hallway the next morning, shot in the back, and Laura’s Chinese shawl has vanished.
At this point the official investigation begins under Superintendent Randal March, who had once been a schoolboy under Miss Silver’s tutelage. I’ll go more deeply into the details below, but essentially a number of suspects present themselves to the attention of the police. Some are excellent suspects, like the crazy ex-husband; some are merely obvious, like a few couples whom Tanis was splitting up by “taking” the male, apparently merely for practice. And then a number of primary characters are more or less equally under suspicion, with no known motive.
Since Miss Silver has been present in the house the whole time, she’s in an ideal position to investigate, and does so at the request of Agnes. Miss Silver sorts out the impossible suspects and focuses upon the likely ones, sorting out a few misguided young people along the way in her inimitable fashion. Although warned by Miss Silver in advance, a slatternly servant who attempts to blackmail the murderer is herself murdered; very soon thereafter Miss Silver listens to the murderer confess and steps in to save the next proposed victim from the same fate. And then everyone whom the reader wants to get married, or stay married, accomplishes that in a coda.
Why is this novel worth your time?
It’s definitely worth your time if you like the particular admixture of detective fiction with light romance that was Patricia Wentworth’s specialty. As I said above, for me it’s the literary equivalent of a cup of cocoa; Wentworth has the knack of being able to convince us to suspend our disbelief and just accept that two nice young people fall in love with each other against the background of a puzzling murder mystery.
The mystery itself is not enormously difficult, probably because there are only a few possibilities. If the reader accepts that Tanis picked up the shawl in the dead of night to keep herself warm, and then was shot, it would be because she had been mistaken for Laura. And there are only really three people who have any reason to kill Laura for the sake of what must have been a family-based grudge, as Miss Silver outlines in the second-last chapter.
And this is where my idealized murder mystery began to take shape. I was considering writing about this novel and thinking, “Now, my favourite kind of mystery is one where there is one suspect for the consideration of the police, and another for the dullest of readers, and another for the quite perceptive reader, and finally the actual murderer, whom only the most acute reader will identify. And that’s what’s happened here.”
The ex-husband is soon eliminated conclusively as a suspect, even to the imagination of a John Dickson Carr; he’s strapped to his hospital bed under full-time 24/7 nursing care. So there are two Tanis-besotted young men and their aggrieved young wives who hate Tanis, for the dullest of readers. Miss Silver sorts the second couple out around Chapter 35. In Chapter 36 we learn something that Miss Silver has always known but has not yet told the police OR the reader, which is a little unfair — Agnes Fane is not confined to her wheelchair, but merely prefers that the severe limp bestowed by her riding accident not be seen. But she walks around the house in the middle of the night. And this, of course, immediately places her at the head of the perceptive reader’s suspect list. (In Golden Age mysteries, anyone in a wheelchair is immediately suspect of being able to get around without one, am I right?)
So in chapter 39 the blackmailing maid is killed by a shadowy figure, and immediately after in chapter 40 Laura hears and surprises Agnes Fane in the act of walking around the house. In chapter 41, dull cousin Lucy comes to rouse Laura yet again, because Agnes has had some sort of health crisis and Lucy needs help getting her a doctor without letting anyone know (because these sorts of things should be kept in the family). Lucy babbles on to Laura about the night Tanis was murdered, and the reader is increasingly convinced that Lucy is not quite saying outright that Agnes shot Tanis in mistake for Laura. And since this fits the plot so far, we don’t quite know what’s coming next but we expect that Agnes will have to pay for her crimes.
And Miss Silver has roused Carey Desborough to back her up physically, because only she knows that the murderer is really cousin Lucy, who is nuttier than a fruitcake. (Lucy wants to kill Laura and blame everything on her so that she and Agnes will live happily ever after with Tanis’s offstage young son.) So this penultimate chapter surprises the reader yet again. Lucy is the killer whom only a few will legitimately suspect.
Miss Silver provides a tiny clue which lets you know that, yes, you could have figured it out if you had been superhumanly observant. She boils it down to three suspects (Agnes, her maid Perry, and Lucy) who may conceivably have a grudge against Laura, and notes that Lucy is the only one who is short-sighted. “Laura had been wearing a black lace dress. Tanis had changed into black pyjamas and a heavy black silk coat. Only a very short-sighted person to whom all black materials look alike at a little distance could have mistaken that heavy silk for so different a material as lace.” And so that becomes the if-and-only-if condition that identified the short-sighted Lucy as the murderer, which Randal March calls “acute — and how feminine!”
It’s actually a cheat, since at no previous time has Wentworth remarked that Lucy is short-sighted. She has noted, though, that Lucy reads a lot of thrillers and tries to act like she doesn’t, so perhaps that is hint enough.
However, it did seem as though Wentworth was working towards layering the book in such a way that the identity of the murderer would really be a surprise, and doing so in the way I’ve noted works well. Another mystery writer has commented along the same lines, although my memory fails me as to exactly whom that was. You create a suspect who is obviously guilty and whom the police arrest, then one a little less guilty-looking for the duller reader, a well-hidden suspect for the smarter reader, and a very slender path leading to the only correct answer for the smartest few.
What else, I wondered, has Wentworth done here from which I might extract certain basic principles of mystery construction?
Well, there is something here that I only find among the best-constructed mysteries — and it’s the reason I had to abandon spoilers and Tell All, in order to get this across. Essentially there is an underlying structure in this book where the physical facts and actions of the characters combine to produce a puzzle; but all the physical facts and actions of the characters share a kind of thematic bond. The book is “about” something.
Let me show you what I mean with reference to this particular book. The event that starts all the other balls rolling is that, many years ago, Laura’s father broke his engagement with Agnes because he had fallen in love with Laura’s mother and ran away with her. Twenty-one years later, Laura herself breaks up the engagement of Carey and Tanis — at least, from the point of view of Agnes. Imagine you’re Agnes for a moment. You were thrown over by Laura’s father 21 years ago, and now your beloved ward is going to be thrown over by her fiancé at Laura’s behest. So the emotional betrayal of the past is echoed by the emotional betrayal of the present.
I have to say, as a reader I find this kind of mystery to be a very satisfying reading experience. I look for thematic echoes like this in mysteries and very frequently do not find them, although they are the everyday stuff of what I term “literary fiction”. Even more interesting to me is the idea that these echoes result in a mystery plot that grows out of character and not mechanical necessity.
Here, it’s entirely possible that Agnes has gone crazy enough to try to shoot Laura (and mistakenly gun down Tanis). Why? Because we understand that Agnes’s betrayal 21 years ago has affected her entire life. We know she is proud and that her broken engagement essentially left her a lifelong spinster, unable to trust men. And Agnes has raised Tanis in such a way that she herself is entirely untrustworthy in romantic matters. She steals other women’s beaux and then casts them aside, she makes and breaks marriage engagements without scruple. You can understand why Tanis is the way she is, because you can understand why Agnes is the way she is. And the whole plot flows from those two characters.
Sure, it doesn’t sound like much to an audience capable of understanding the byzantine relationships of Game of Thrones, or even The Young and the Restless. But think about it in detective fiction terms. Take, for example, The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934). There is pretty much zero in the way of psychological realism; the activities of the plot are entirely subordinated to making the set-piece that is the surroundings of the corpse make any sense. Why would someone come up with a murder plot that requires the murderer to insert two long spears through the clothing of the corpse, all of which is reversed? There’s no reason that doesn’t have the theme to Looney Tunes playing in the background. Whereas here — why, for instance, does Agnes want to own the house so badly? Because she wants it as a legacy for Tanis, and even Tanis’s son after her death. She wants to give her something permanent that will always be there, unlike men LOL. Everything rings true, because you can understand why the characters feel that way.
I’m not saying I dislike Chinese Orange, by the way, just that I much prefer it when a mystery has some element of … psychological necessity, if you will. I like detective novels even more when they contain an attention to detail such that every sub-plot contains the same thematic element. Here, people’s lives worsen when they interfere with romantic relationships, or their own romantic relationship is damaged or broken. Not only are Tanis and Agnes and Laura and Carey all affected by the broken engagement 20 years ago, husbands who dally with Tanis get suspected of murder by their wives, and vice versa. The puzzle is not as difficult as Chinese Orange but there is a good balance between plot and characterization here, and I enjoy that.
There are a few problems, of course. Wentworth here cheats a few times, notably in not providing sufficient evidence about the exact circumstances of Agnes and Lucy. And Lucy is pretty far-fetched as the ultimate murderer; Agnes is the one with all the steely determination who could pull that trigger and then kill the servant to hide her crimes. It’s hard to understand how Miss Silver herself could have known both these women from children and yet not realized that either was capable of murder; she was either less piercingly smart than she usually is, which isn’t possible 😉 or she was giving them the benefit of a doubt, which is not really the firmly upright Miss Silver.
The idea of the disloyal servant who Knows Something and tries to blackmail the murderer is a favourite idea of Wentworth’s — it shows up again in identical form in 1955’s Out Of The Past. I think she found it convenient in plotting terms, since it lets you have an exciting Act II without getting rid of any of the main suspects.
I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading Patricia Wentworth in the recent months and I’m really enjoying the process. There is always something diverting that she has to say about social issues, and even domestic economy, an interesting mystery to solve, and a light romantic plot that doesn’t strain credulity. (Well, okay, all those young women with caramel-coloured eyes and huge eyelashes, that strains credulity. But the romance is fine LOL.) And there is the presence of Miss Silver, who represents order and method and everything that is good about being an English gentlewoman. I’ve gone through her books a number of times now and always enjoyed the experience; I recommend her work to your attention.