Murders for September | Jeremy Black
gMask (1928) is a conventional and not exactly brilliant opening to what has become a bestselling series, the 32 mystery novels featuring Maud Silver, a professional private detective who moves in establishment circles. Written by Patricia Wentworth, already a widely published author, gray mask clearly didn’t set a new standard for her, as the next Miss Silver, The case is closeddid not appear until 1937, and in the meantime had produced many other novels, including those in the Benbow Smith series.
In a theme familiar to readers of the 1920s—those of Buchan and Christie in particular, but not only—we have a sinister conspiracy within the elite: “‘People are always mad when they go against the established order. I’ve been mad with great success for twenty years. …. some hot communist good stuff. gray mask offers the kind of satirical narrative of PG Wodehouse (1931), a novel that may be understated because its standard inimitable characters are absent:
He had placed the bearded man now. He has seen it all. Obviously, it must be The Sniffer, the mysterious leader of the massive cocaine ring that was causing Scotland Yard so much concern. As for the gray mustache, he would be a highly placed accomplice, a baronet of good repute, or perhaps a well-regarded duke, on whose reputation no suspicion of wrongdoing had ever rested. And his unmistakable agitation must have been caused by the shock of meeting The Sniffer in a place like this [the Berkeley]or his [false] the beard could come off at any moment and betray him.
“Return to the underground cellar of Limehouse, where you are known and respected.”
The recipient of this supposed advice is of course Godfrey, Lord Biskerton, son and heir to the 6th Earl of Hoddesdon, in disguise both to keep tabs on his fiancée and to avoid his many creditors.
Although the legacy aspect of gray mask is original, the plot as a whole is weak and even I guessed the villain. Still, the book is worth reading for its deployment of Maud Silver (although her ability is not explained), and also for the sense of social change. Miss Canterbury enters the millinery where the heroine works:
‘I don’t care about those hats that cover your ears – they wallow you so much. I remember one of the loveliest hats I had on before the war, trimmed in shaded tulle and ostrich feathers. I wore it to the dean’s garden party, and it was a lot admired.… the tulle was put on in big knots…. It is really very disappointing not to be able to get an ordinary black hat with feathers in Sloane Street.
The case is closed (1937), the second in the Miss Silver series, is significantly better than gray mask. lonely road (1939), the third, is a further improvement. Maud Silver is more foregrounded, and the plot feels like an Agatha Christie, with a closed family group and a dangerous clifftop walk, though the vipers in the bed are a bit more dramatic.
Let’s move on to another novelist:
“Lavinia’s sister – Emma – married my father when I was little. That’s all. Mother—that is, Emma—practically surrounded him, if the truth be told. He had no chance. See, she raised Lavinia, and it was a scary shock for her when Vinnie got up and did something on her own. Especially anything that’s as outrageous as becoming a bestseller. Emma looked around to see what else she could get her hands on that would do to brood, and there was Father, stuck with a little girl, and just asking to be stopped. So she became Emma Garrowby, and my mother. I never consider it my “walk” because I don’t remember any other. When my father died, my mother came to live in Trimmings with Aunt Lavinia, and when I left school I took over the job of her secretary.
So are you? And it gets worse. love and be wise (1950) is not one of Joséphine Tey’s best books. There’s a confused plot among the literati, beginning with an editor’s sherry night for the posers, and the unlikely Detective Inspector Grant shows up with his literary interests and appreciation that “life was built entirely of offsets “. There are few, alas, to note in this book.
Mystery novel reviews focus on the here and now
Mystery novel reviews focus on the here and now, or rather the future and those pushed by publishers. It is wiser to let some time pass and not be overwhelmed by the hype of the moment; easier then to appreciate that devices used apparently with some success can in fact be hackneyed, silly plots and one-dimensional characterization, as, for example, with The Thursday Murder Club.
The perspective of time offers the opportunity to (re-)consider Julia Chapman’s Dales Detective Series, published by Pan. Appointment with death (2017, £8.99), the first, features main characters Samson O’Brien and Delilah Metcalfe, the troubled staff of the Dales Detective Agency and the Dales Dating Agency respectively. James Herriot very briefly appears as the local vet, but it is not the Yorkshire Dales of All creatures big and small, nor ECR Lorac’s measured Lunedale murder. Instead, amid well-observed writing that captures small-town life and the nature of the terrain, there are a significant number of seemingly speed-dating related deaths. The number and explanation are somewhat far-fetched, but the characterization is good, as is the discussion of the issues of being young women in this culture. The relationship of the main characters is handled well and the book becomes a page-turner. It was an effective start to a series that captured its pay and people.
The second novel, Date with Malice (2017, £8.99), continues only a month later, and with the Dales again delivering humor as well as cruelty – “he was not a tourist to be fooled by blue skies at the -above.” Not as gripping or well sustained as Appointment with death, but worth reading. I had not anticipated the solution.
Looking at the storylines of the present, there are so many opportunities for new developments that it is worth considering the likely assessment of current murder practices. Drones, for example, offer opportunities for surveillance, but now also for murder. Proximity is not necessary. For motive, the world of transsexualism offers possibilities for murders of anger and revenge, and revelations of all kinds. The range of massacres will include the wrath of family members, unwitting suitors, unwitting partners, etc. This vein of the plot will likely be worked through relatively quickly. It will certainly offer new challenges to critics. Who dares to suggest implausibility in this cultural battlefield?
As an example of current contingencies, Covid forms part of the backdrop to a number of recent mystery novels, including Peter May’s. The Gate of Night (Riverrun, 2021, £8.99). This imaginary tale brings together two murders in France, in 1944 and 2020, and has art as its common thread. The writing is pedestrian and the narrative often laborious. There are too many “She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow, which was enough to force him out of his chair to walk to his room, his hands deep in his pockets” or “She didn’t know anything at all about it.” man. And yet, he seemed to know everything about her – or, at least, exactly where to find her. Dark furrowed brows over warm brown eyes. Some of the descriptions just don’t work, for example that of the old town of Würzburg as “a jumble of red roofs and spiers”. There are many recent works of better quality, or at the very least, many, many works of better quality.
For those who want a fictionalized account of Paris during World War II, Alan Furst offers much more understanding, writing, characterization and style, and, for the rivalries between the Germans, so does Philip Kerr. .