- By Patricia Wentworth
- First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1943; US: Lippincott, 1943
The Chinese shawl belonged to Laura Fane; threads from it were found clutched in Tanis Lyle’s dead hands. Could Laura have shot her beautiful, bitchy cousin? Laura and Carey Desborough had fallen in love at first sight, but Tanis claimed Carey was her fiancé – which he denied. Family history seemed to repeat itself; Laura’s father had jilted Tanis’s guardian, the formidable Agnes, who rode her horse over a quarry in despair, crippling herself. But half the household at the Priory hated the green-eyed Tanis, who toyed with men’s affections to the fury of their wives and girlfriends. Fortunately Miss Silver, ex-governess, detective, and possible angel, is on hand.
This is the first Patricia Wentworth I have read in more than 20 years. With the arrogance of a 14-year-old boy, I decided that she was a second-rate writer of cosies; besides, there were more interesting writers like John Dickson Carr. I may have been wrong to dismiss her in so cavalier a fashion.
Wentworth was certainly a “lady waltzer”, as Carr dubbed Anna Katharine Green, Carolyn Wells, and their ilk. Innocent people wander around the murder scene, dropping handkerchieves (blood-stained, of course) and assignation notes, and making false confessions. But Wentworth writes rather better than Wells; the setting may be the old country house, but her characters are people rather than cardboard. (Noah Stewart wrote appreciatively of Wentworth’s balance between puzzle and characterisation.) er plotting is rather good, too; the gimmick is clever enough to remember clearly 23 years later. (Confession: I can’t remember whether I finished this one all those many years ago, but I may have peeked at the ending. It was a large print edition.) The idea is a variation on Agatha Christie‘s Peril at End House. (ROT-13) Va Crevy, vg vf nffhzrq gur jebat tvey jnf xvyyrq orpnhfr fur jnf jrnevat gur vagraqrq ivpgvz’f Puvarfr funjy; gur jebat tvey, vg gheaf bhg, jnf gur ivpgvz nyy nybat. Va Funjy, Gnavf vf frg hc nf gur boivbhf ivpgvz; ng gur raq, jr yrnea gung fur jnf gur jebat ivpgvz, xvyyrq orpnhfr fur jnf jrnevat gur vagraqrq ivpgvz’f funjy. The astute reader might work out that Ynhen jnf gur vagraqrq ivpgvz, but (as I did) still guess wrongly, and tumble into Wentworth’s second trap. (N jurrypunve-obhaq fhfcrpg? Jung pbhyq or zber boivbhf?) Miss Wentworth waltzes divinely.
1943 J.B. Lippincott (US)
In her long and successful career as a private enquiry agent, Maud Silver had learned to probe in the past for the seeds of murder. The past was almost palable that weekend at “The Priory” when young Laura came down to talk over the matter of her inheritance with Agnes Fane.
Twenty-two years ago Oliver Fane had jilted Agnes, his cousin and fiancée, to run off with a lovely interloper. Laura was the child of that romantic marriage, and her inheritance was “The Priory”, where Agnes Fane had lived for years. Little Miss Silver, a friend of the family, looked on and thought her own thoughts as the weekend progressed. It caused her little surprise when in the midst of the group made up of Laura’s relations, the seductive Tanis and several R.A.F. officers on leave, a new guest – murder – broke in. Quietly and effectively she begins her investigation of the crime and its violent aftermath.
The Chinese Shawl is one of a superior author’s best performances, a story enriched with humour and the authentic atmosphere of an English country house in wartime.