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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:

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text 2017-08-17 00:04
Look!! Isn't it pretty? Thank you so much, MR!!

 

Now, as for filling in all those beautiful squares ...

 

 

I think my brain will be going full tilt tonight!

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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 2017-08-15 22:53
Reading progress update: I've read 9 out of 230 pages.
Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne, Brian W. Aldiss,Michael Glencross

He had worked in ten different households. In every one the people had been temperamental or unpredictable, eager to seek out adventure or explore other countries, something that no longer suited Passepartout. [...] He discovered in the meanwhile that Phileas Fogg, Esq., was looking for a servant. He made some enquiries about this gentleman. Someone whose daily life was so well ordered, someone who never spent the night away from home and didn´t travel or even go away for a day, was bound to suit him.

 

I wonder what Passepartout is going to say about Phileas Fogg´s upcoming travel plans...

 

 

 

 

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-08-15 12:23
Reading progress update: I've read 97 out of 332 pages.
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

Alright, I'm at the end of chapter 14 now, and ... did these Golden Age writers really all crib from each other to such a huge extent, or was there some sort of unspoken convention about plot and character points you absolutely had to hit in one or more of your novels (and the more in one and the same novel the better)?

 

So far, we've had -- just off the top of my head; at this point I'm probably even forgetting the odd item already, there's so many of them:

 

* A main character locking himself into a closet to listen in on a criminal conspiracy led by a masked, unknown mastermind (the eponymous Grey Mask) (cf. Agatha Christie, "The Seven Dials Mystery" and "The Secret Adversary" -- where replace "closet" by "upstairs room");

 

* A flippant character straight out of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest", complete with droppin' his 'g's and all (cf. both Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and Freddie Arbuthnot, though I suspect Archie Millar has a mite more grey matter inside his skull than Lord Peter's friend Freddie);

 

* A teenage ingenue (read: TSTL character) whose chief, albeit not sole function in the novel is to throw the bad guys into profound bafflement, with nary a clue of the danger she's putting herself in (MbD's hunch about her is definitiely, to phrase it in the language of the time, coming up trumps) (cf. Georgette Heyer and Margery Allingham -- you name it, they've written it -- and also Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Case of Identity" and "The Illustrious Client");

 

* A sinister plot to un-inherit an unprotected girl (here: aforesaid TSTL teenage ingenue) from a multi-million pound inheritance (cf. Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Sign of Four" and several other stories, ditto Agatha Christie);

 

* A letter (here: put forth in furtherance of said plot) that will undoubtedly turn out to be a forgery (an utter Golden Age staple; there's no decent crime writer of the time who did not use it at some point or other -- one of my favorite examples, at Lord Peter's own hands, appears in Dorothy L. Sayers's "Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club");

 

* A fairly obviously crooked lawyer (another staple, though today decidedly more than in the Golden Age novels);

 

* An altogether too-harmless-to-be-believed male character taking his wife abroad, from where, promptly, comes news of her sad demise (cf. Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Illustrious Client"; for the character see also Uncle Joseph in Heyer's "Envious Casca");

 

* Oodles of London pea-souper fog (cf. Edgar Wallace -- take your pick of his novels -- and E.W. Hornung; also Agatha Christie, "The Man in the Fog" and "The Crackler", though the latter is Tommy and Tuppence's "Edgar Wallace" case, so half the honors go to Wallace for that one again);

 

* A character who pretends to be deaf (though not dumb! How are we supposed to believe he's able to speak if he can't hear himself?) but who is anything but, and whom -- dun, du-dun-dun -- our hero follows through the aforementioned London fog (cf. Edgar Wallace again, "The Dark Eyes of London");

 

* A young lady using a particular name as an alias just because she thinks it's romantic, without realizing how much she's going to get herself into trouble by uttering that particular name in the hearing of the wrong people (cf. Agatha Christie, "The Secret Adversary");

 

* A young lady from a "good family" who's fallen on hard luck and has to work -- as a shop assistant, secretary, governess, or the like (here it's as a shop assistant) -- to earn her living (cf. half of Sherlock Holmes's female clients, several Agatha Christie characters -- e.g. Midge Hardcastle in "The Hollow" and the eponymous heroine of "Jane in Search of a Job" --; and Sheila Fentiman in Dorothy L. Sayers's "Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club");

 

* the wise-cracking inhabitants of far-away places -- here it's South American Indian tribes named Hula-Bula and Taran-Tula (I swear I'm NOT making this up) whose devoid-of-meaning idioms can give any "Confucius say ..." quote a run for its money;

 

* and, of course, a main character who (with yet another nod to Ms. Heyer and Dame Agatha) has just returned to London after several years' absence and plays at amateur detective to untangle the weeds that seem to have grown on his patch while he was away; only to find himself baffled and call on Miss Silver at the end.

 

As for Miss Silver herself, who has only made her first, introductory appearance at this point ... well, Agatha Christie always insisted that she had based Miss Marple on her own granny, and that she had been inspired to create the character after having had such fun with Caroline Sheppard in "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd", but given that "Grey Mask" was published two years prior to Miss Marple's first case, "Murder at the Vicarage," I can't help but wonder whether Miss Silver provided some sort of inspiration, too, after all.  The two ladies are definitely not alike, but Miss Silver's initially seemingly nondescript appearance, secret sense of humor, and of course her knitting needles (!) do strike a familiar chord.  The Miss Silver I've seen in other books can on occasion be decidedly more formidable than Christie's Miss Marple (in behaviour, though not in appearance, more like the Margaret Rutherford version of Miss Marple, who is not like the character from the books at all) ... it'll be interesting to see how we get from Miss Silver's first appearance to the traits she exhibits later. -- One obvious difference between the two characters is, of course, that Miss Silver is a pro, with an office and all, while Miss Marple insists that she is anything but.

 

Don't get me wrong; it's a fast read and I am rather enjoying it.  But, dang -- half the time I keep thinking, geez, that's something, too, that I've read before!

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