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review 2017-08-17 15:43
Knitting Needles, Brains, and Burglary (by Proxy)
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

This book marks Miss Silver's entrance into the annals of Golden Age crime fiction, and it's certainly an enjoyable one.

 

I'd read other Miss Silver mysteries before: This doesn't strike me as a series one absolutely has to read strictly in order; even though it is worthwhile noting that Wentworth also created several other fictional detectives, who even when appearing without Miss Silver clearly operate in the same fictional universe, and they do repeatedly show up in her cases as well.  Most, if not all of these other detectives are former pupils of Miss Silver, who once upon a time used to be a governess, and wherever they do appear alongside her, the ultimate honors of solving the case invariably go to her in the end.  So I guess the one aspect to be aware of is which one (if any) of her fellow sleuths is featured in a given book, and where in the sequence of their collaboration with Miss Silver the book in question is placed. -- For those interested, I've found a very neat overview on this on a blog called The Passing Tramp.

 

Anyway, having read other books featuring Miss Silver, I was interested to see how she had initially been introduced, so when there was talk of a Grey Mask buddy read, I jumped at the idea.  And I'm glad I did! 

 

We get to see more of Miss Silver's (on occasion quite formidable) ex-governess side in the later books, but even in this first venture -- where none of the aforementioned other detectives appears -- we see her treating a recalcitrant client essentially like the ten-year-olds she used to tutor, and most of her trademark features are already in place: the "gentle cough" that invariably precedes any statement of import; her knitting needles (not the only feature she shares with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple -- both ladies also have a certain penchant for primness, even if both of them are equally capable of taking it with a certain pinch of salt), her neat and capacious handbag, and most importantly, her razor-sharp brain, which easily puts her on a level with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot ... and, again, Miss Marple, about whom none less than (ex-)CID Chief Sir Henry Clithering says in The Body in the Library, and not without reason, that she is "better at [solving crimes] than I am at it":

 

"Downstairs in the lounge ... there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid spinsterish face, and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it as all in the day's work." 

 

The same thing might just as well be said about Miss Silver -- who however, like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, leaves the reader (and the other party to the conversation) in no doubt as to the size of her brains and her capacity of logical thought, whereas Miss Marple outwardly is all flutter and modesty, while nevertheless surreptitiously manipulating others into doing just what she needs them to do ... while Miss Silver can be downright facetiously open about it:

 

"Miss Silver tapped with her pencil.

'Are you suggesting that we should apply for a search warrant?'

'No, I'm not.  I'm suggestin' doin' a little job of breakin' and enterin'.  Look here, Miss Silver, are you game? [...]'

'I've my reputation to consider,' said Miss Silver. She coughed. 'If I were walking along [that particular] Street and were to ring [that house's] bell --' she paused and gazed at him mildly.  'If you opened the door to me, it really would not be any business of mine how you got in.'"

 

And a while later:

 

"Miss Silver turned her torch down, picked up a metal bar, and put it into [his] hand.

'What is it?'

'Well,' said Miss Silver -- she gave a slight cough -- 'I believe it is called a jemmy -- an instrument in use amongst burglars.  I, of course, have my reputation to consider. But if you --' She coughed again. 'It really seems quite providential -- doesn't it?'

'Heaven helps those who help themselves, in fact,' [he] responded.

Miss Silver proceeded to give him expert advice as to lock-breaking."

 

I'm not sure that we'd ever see quite that sort of scene with Miss Marple (Holmes and Poirot are, of course, a different matter; they've both been known to burgle the odd building in the interests of higher justice), though Miss Marple would almost certainly have, amid a great deal of flutter, pinpointed the exact location to look for inside the house in question in advance, to within a few inches at most; probably after having gotten the vicar's wife to unearth for her precisely the same (published) source that had inspired the present owner of the house to make use of that very location in the first place.

 

Unlike Holmes and Poirot (and, for that matter, Miss Marple), who at least in the Final Reveal typically give a full account of their methods and thought processes, we are not given that sort of access here, and if anything, it is this that makes Miss Silver seem decidedly more ethereal than in the later books -- which, at least the ones I've read, do feature a traditional Final Reveal; warts and all: Not only does Miss Silver seem in this, her first venture, however, to appear out of nothing in her client's and the other protagonists' vista and vicinity on more than one occasion; she also has to do all her own research, since she does not have an assistant, which would have had to involve quite a substantial amount of interviews, visits to libraries, and other "legwork", all of which at times left me wondering how she could possibly have fitted all that activity into the time frame available ... while at the same time keeping exact tabs on her client's and his protegée's, as well as pretty much all the other major characters' whereabouts.

 

Patricia Wentworth had published several romance novels before turning to crime fiction, and this is not the only one of her books on which that writerly history has left an undelible mark.  (It's also not the only one of her books where the various emotional conflicts are "resolved" in rather a rushed way at the end.)  As for the book's major characters (besides Miss Silver), they fall nicely into the categories and types that had already been coined by other mystery authors at the time, and to a large extent made up the stock whose representatives would continue to populate the better part of Golden Age mysteries up to the eve of World War II and beyond.  Still, like the other Miss Silver mysteries I've read, this proved to be a quick, entertaining and deceptively lightly-written read, and I'll happily continue to sprinkle books from this series in among my reading pleasure.

 

*************

 

Previous status updates:

1/3 mark

2/3 mark

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text 2017-08-17 05:42
Reading progress update: I've read 235 out of 269 pages.
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

I finished up to chapter 35 last night, and will likely finish up this afternoon.  Events conspired against a more timely update, but I wanted to post a quick update of my thoughts up to this point.

 

In no particular order:

 

Miss Standing reaches heights of TSTL that are really quite impressive.  I haven't read so vapid and empty -eaded a character in recent memory.  She is actually a hazard to herself and everyone around her.

 

Miss Silver is, so far, not what I was expecting.  Which is a good thing, by the way.  She's remote, but not unlikeable.  I think it makes a great deal of difference that I'm coming into the series fresh with zero idea of what kind of character she becomes in later books.  She's definitely a female Holmes though; she might knit like Miss Marple, but she thinks like Sherlock.

 

Grey Mask is a Moriarty wannabe if I've ever read one; in fact, I'd go so far as to say Miss Silver's explanation of Grey Mask verges on plagiaristic (if only a couple of sentences can be considered plagiaristic).  I'm beginning to think Themis-Athena isn't at all wrong about his identity, but if it is him, boy howdy is he a good actor.  I'm not sure I'd buy that someone was able to live that level of lie authentically day in and day out for decades.

 

Interesting little twist that Lesbia drops into conversation with Margaret. 

 

I just want to bang Charles and Margaret's heads together.

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review 2017-08-17 03:30
Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

I was so busy creating bingo cards that I haven't really had a chance to put my thoughts in order on this buddy read. 

 

I finished this one last night, blasting through the last 25% or so of the mystery. The "criminal mastermind" trope, honestly, isn't one of my favorites, but even knowing that, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. And while I generally acknowledge Agatha Christie to be the Queen of Everything, Patricia Wentworth did the criminal mastermind better than Christie in The Big Four.

 

These golden age mysteries are just such a pleasure for me to read that I often forgive them for quirks that would really bother me in a modern mystery. Margot, aka Greta, would've made me pull my hair out by the roots in a new release. Yes, she was TSTL. Yes, she was so ridiculously naive that no one could possibly be that dumb. And the idea that she would marry Archie, who is very nearly as stupid as she is, would be terrifying if it weren't so improbable.

 

I do think that the relationship issues between Charles and Margaret were solved rather too neatly. In addition, Margaret was written as a character of brains and integrity, so some of her decisions seemed decidedly unlikely. I'm curious to see the development of Miss Silver in later releases, and I enjoyed Patricia Wentworth's tidy prose. She has a lot of books available including a lot of non-Miss Silver books that have been re-issued. 

 

Tigus posted a list of favorite Miss Silver novels, so I'm pretty psyched to check those out! It looks like this isn't really a series that needs to be read in order?

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text 2017-08-16 12:24
Reading progress update: I've read 203 out of 332 pages.
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

Two thirds of the way through, and even if I had had any doubt whether the guy on the cover of my edition is supposed to be Charles Moray (which I didn't), I now have confirmation straight from the mouth of the babe (our Teenage Ingenue, aka TSTL heiress-in-peril) -- except that whoever created this cover didn't get the memo about the grey eyes:

 

"Charles is an explorer, but he isn't exploring just now.  He is the handsomest.  He has grey eyes and a most frightfully romatic frown [...] Charles has a lot of black eyelashes and frightfully black eyebrows.  They go all twisty when he is cross.  I shouldn't like them to go all twisty at me."

"I think Charles must have a most awful temper really, because he glared in the most frightful way you ever saw.  I've never seen anyone glare like it before, except on the films when they're just going to murder somebody, or the girl has been carried away by Bad Pete or someone like that.  Of course Sheikhs glare nearly the whole time.  I think Charles is awfully like a Sheikh really."

 

Well, idiot child, it would be hard NOT to glare at you with eyebrows all in a twist when you've just given the whole show away, and I strongly suspect to the one person you should have been kept away from from the start!  Except that Charles is starting to behave almost as idiotically as you, and about Margaret, no less.  Oh well.  Here's hoping their inevitable reconciliation won't at least be a total rush, but I have a feeling this isn't the sort of book that allows for the gradual resolution that in real life would be the only way for them to recover a solid joint footing to build on for the future.

 

That being said, we've now also had the mandatory desks with secret drawers containing mysterious paper clues in the form of signatures and empty envelopes with meaning-laden inscriptions (two matching such mysterious desks, no less, embossed with almost identical initials); there are hints that the story's two damsels-more-or-less-in-distress (Margaret and Margot, who really is called Margaret as well and has been cover-named Greta) just might be half-sisters; and Archie -- like Lord Peter Wimsey in "Murder Must Advertise" -- is working in a publishing firm (though in Wimsey's case that was based on Dorothy L. Sayers's own experience ... still, it's another coincidence).  Oh, and Miss Silver has pulled a Sherlock in referring to "Grey Mask" as someone who she's come across again and again in recent years, not in person but as a secret intelligence pulling the strings behind the scenes of various daring criminal enterprises.  Moriarty, much?

 

Miss Silver is now clearly also exhibiting her ex-governess side, treating a silly recalcitrant client (read: Charles) essentially like she would have the ten-year-olds she used to tutor.  This may very well come across as condescending (especially since there has been no mention of this aspect of her past just yet ... unless I've missed it, which I wouldn't rule out at all of course); except I'm with her all the way on this one -- Charles is behaving like an idiot, and he'd better get over it soon or he'll lose my sympathy.  Especially since I very much suspect he now has all the knowledge he needs about Grey Mask's true identity, and his first priority should be on unmasking that person (and on protecting our hapless teenage ingenue ... even a brainless little minion like her doesn't deserve to be murdered, after all)!

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text 2017-08-16 05:38
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

I will have more on this tomorrow!

 

I wasn't at all sure what to expect with this one, but I really liked it and I'm sure I will read more Patricia Wentworth! I'm really glad I decided to participate in this quick buddy read!

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