Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
This is an unplanned and last minute entry for Past Offence’s Crimes of the Century monthly challenge, which is focusing on the mystery fiction of 1945. I was excited to read this novel as it is my first experience of a non-Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth. Curtis Evans as ever writes a brilliant introduction which brings Wentworth’s life to well… life! After all I never realised that she was born in India into a very military family and was named Dora! It was also interesting to find out in the introduction that although Wentworth is better known for her Miss Silver mysteries, they actually made up less than 50% of her output and only became more frequent from the 1940s onwards.
Silence in Court (1945) is unsurprisingly a court based mystery with Carey Silence (pun intended one assumes) entering the dock to be tried for the murder of her grandmother’s cousin Honoria Maquisten, who died of a sleeping draught overdose. The narrative then takes us back in time to when Carey first came to live at Honoria’s, following a stay in hospital after the train she was on was bombed. Small details suggest that the novel is set during the latter end of WW2 and in its own way has a subtle but crucial effect on the plot events. As Carey goes to meet Honoria for the first time we are also introduced to the love interest in the story (no Wentworth novel would be without one), the American Jeff Stewart and their relationship is at the stage where Carey is simultaneously annoyed and interested in him: ‘But why she should want to laugh when she was furious with him was more aggravating than words could say.’ Honoria does not live alone and has several of her relatives living with her including her nephew Dennis Harland, a recuperating RAF pilot, and her nieces Nora Hull and Honor King. There is also another nephew who visits a lot called Robert Maquisten. Honoria is also tended to by her faithful maid Ellen and a nurse called Magda Brayle. Honoria can be considered a larger than life sort of character which is attested to by Carey who says: ‘What was the good of saying that Cousin Honoria was like the Queen of Sheba and leaving it at that? The Queen of Sheba didn’t wear a vermilion wig dressed about a foot high in several thousand curls.’
Honoria like so many other Golden Age detective novel victims, is the family tyrant who holds the purse strings and in particular enjoys writing new wills, changing them on the slightest whim. Dennis is very open to Carey about everyone’s financial expectations concerning Honoria. Fortunately for Carey though, Honoria gets on well with her, due to her resemblance to her grandmother and in a matter of weeks she is written into the will and Honoria even wants to give Carey her rubies. During this interim whilst Jeff has been away, Carey has been spending a lot of time with Dennis, leaving us and Carey with doubts as to where her affections lie. And it seems she is not the only one with hints that Nora may be playing away from home while her husband is abroad. Life seems idyllic until one fateful day when an unstamped letter provokes uncontrollable wrath within Honoria leading to her making a final will change or the draft of one at least, which is to have the legatees’ names written in the following day. Originally all of the nieces and nephews and Carey were included, yet in this new draft, there is one less place for a name. Who has been written out?
It is not surprising that Carey is arrested the following day when Honoria is discovered dead. It was she was who gave Honoria her sleeping draft and the circumstantial evidence of words heard by other inmates pile up against her, showing Carey who her true friends and allies are and aren’t. Although Carey’s name is never mentioned as the dropped legatee, other witnesses make a convincing case that it was. The fact the letter which caused all these problems has vanished does not help matters. Jeff of course rushes to her aid, organising the best defence possible and Hugh Vane her defending counsel is good at his job. The story moves back to the present day trial and this section of the novel is particularly well done, revealing how dangerous and malleable conversational evidence is. Yet for all Vane’s skills it seems like the case could go either way. Will Carey be acquitted? Will the true killer be revealed?
The premise of this story may feel quite familiar to readers, but Wentworth is adept at telling her tale well. Characterisation is one of her particular strengths, as all the inmates in Honoria’s house stand out as individuals and from the beginning you can see the underlying tensions which constrain and beleaguer them. The characterisation of Carey is especially good as we are able to see the effect being arrested has had on her, the strain, the stress and loss of identity. Her fear of being convicted is palpable, such as when she talks about the prosecuting counsel: ‘It was like seeing someone stand up to shoot at you – someone quite calm and at his ease, quite terribly practised in the weapon he was going to use.’ Carey is also quite an empathetic character, putting herself into the shoes of the jurors for example. Her trial is entertainingly written and I liked how the evidence was viewed in terms of the effect it would have on the different jury members. It was also engaging to see how the different characters fare under examination. Honor King is particularly amusing when seen through the eyes of the prosecuting counsel:
‘With her voice at a strained, unnatural pitch, she sounded for all the world like a child reciting a lesson, and a half-witted child at that. Privately, he was of the opinion that Miss Honor King should have been drowned at birth.’
There is a slight feeling of repetition when the trial scenes go over information which has already been elicited from initial police questioning, but this isn’t too bad, especially as the trial progresses. Consequently on the whole Wentworth’s story telling skills are high and I think it is fair to say that this is a feel good fairy tale type of novel. The mystery itself wasn’t too difficult to solve, although Wentworth still had a few surprises up her sleeve for me. Characterisation and character dynamics are at the forefront of this story but I also think there are plenty of clues for puzzle focused readers to ponder over, including a timetable of events.