Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Dog
This is my second non-Miss Silver novel by Wentworth, with my first being Silence in Court (1945) and one of the main things this second read has taught me is that Wentworth is a much more creative writer when she is not tied down by the character of Miss Silver. Furthermore, I think in the beginning of the novel Wentworth shows brief moments of a much more literary, possibly even modernist writing style. But in all in all this is a thriller, a genre which actually marries well with Wentworth’s writing skills and penchant for including romance.
Fool Errant (1929) begins with Hugo Ross applying for a secretarial job with the inventor Ambrose Minstrel at his home, Meade House. Ross is down on his luck at the moment as his uncle recently died, yet the will he promised to write making him his heir, did not turn up. With no money left (having been pick pocketed on the train), getting this job is essential, though it seems a long shot considering his lack of qualifications and experience. Due to the lack of funds he cannot afford to spend the night anywhere close to Meade House, opting for a haystack instead. En route to the aforementioned haystack, Ross collides with a woman in the dark and it is interesting how Wentworth capitalises on the darkness, with the descriptions of both characters being limited to touch and sound. Yet, the voices of Ross and the unknown woman reveal something of their character. Ross has a stammer, whilst the mysterious female has ‘a very pretty voice, rather high, very young, clear and unmodulated like a child’s.’ Ross walks her to her train learning that she is running away, feeling smothered by her relations and fearing through persistence a man called James will finally end up marrying her. She plans to live with a friend called Cissie – though even at this point the reader will have some suspicions surrounding this woman. As our runaway makes a final dash to her train she learns that Ross is to apply for a job at Meade House, a piece of information which makes her shout from the carriage that he must stay away from there. But why?
Of course Ross does no such thing and he is chuffed when he lands the secretarial job, a feelin which is not appreciably diminished by Minstrel’s bossiness or outbursts of temper. Yet over the coming days this soon changes as more and more unusual events occur. A man approaches him with an offer for a pair of field glasses he recently pawned, being prepared to buy them for a ludicrous amount. A piece of random good luck? Ross and the reader are not convinced as Ross feeds him a lie about the field glasses, which the unknown man doesn’t pick him up on. The world may think Ross is a mug or a fool errant but he is actually a lot sharper than he looks. The mystery woman Ross met also tries to make further contact, repeating her same warning and arranging a meeting. Yet when this meeting occurs something does not add up for Ross, especially when the woman he meets says she was just joking about Meade House. Although he never saw the woman that night, he is convinced the woman in front of him is not the same person. So what happened to the other woman? That these events portend doom is foreshadowed in Ross’ dreams, which can be interpreted as Wentworth playing around with the idea of the subconscious: ‘He had never dreamed so much in his life before… The one thing common to these strange dreams was the element of danger; he was always on the brink of something terrible.’
Befuddled and worried about what is happening, Ross calls on his sister’s brother in law, Benbow Smith. He is not an amateur sleuth or even a professional detective, but he seems to have vague connections with the government. The description of him interested me a lot as he reminds me of other fictional sleuths. Like Albert Campion he wears ‘large horn rimmed glasses’ and like Lord Peter Wimsey he is comfortably well off and a collector of art. In the vein of Sherlock Holmes he is a writer of monographs and has even written a book on politics in Europe, forecasting war. Yet his role in the story is a very minor one, which makes him more of a Mycroft figure. Unsurprisingly he is described as an ‘eccentric,’ which is reinforced by his nautical companion, a seafaring parrot who jabbers out song lyrics and phrases at inopportune moments.
After Ross explains what has been happening to him, Smith in return outlines a hypothetical situation. He suggests that Minstrel is currently negotiating with the government over the sale of his plans for a revolutionary aircraft device. Yet he also suggests that either Minstrel, his assistant Hacker or the both of them are keen to offer it to the highest bidder, which is not the government. Smith predicts that a theft will be arranged which will allow the plans to be sold without tarnishing the culprit’s reputation. Of course for this plan to work a scape goat is needed and Smith predicts that will be Ross, a theory which gives a nasty explanation for all the peculiar events which have been going on. He gives Ross two options, to leave as fast as possible or that he returns to his post, keeping his eyes open for evidence and for opportunities to thwart the plans being taken out of the country. Of course this being a thriller Ross opts for the later: ‘He had got to follow the Adventure to the bitter end.’
Further events follow, with the sinister plot against Ross unfolding rapidly. The tension builds up as the day of the “theft” arrives. Wentworth is adept at continually surprising the reader in the final section of the novel leaving the reader wondering if Ross will be triumphant or whether he will be ultimately enveloped by the machinations against him. Things do not go to plan for either side and Ross has the additional task of saving the woman he loves, as this being a Wentworth novel, there must be a love interest.
In retrospect I found this to be quite a surprising Wentworth novel, as it made me rethink what I thought I knew to be her way of writing. That’s not to say this novel didn’t include some of the things I expected. We have the love interest, though thankfully the woman although a bit of twerp is bearable. Ultimately she redeems herself at the end, as during the middle of the book I think both me and Ross wanted to slap her, as she finds him too dictatorial when he advises sensible decisions e.g. Let’s not make lots of noise to attract the bad guys’ attentions. Moreover, there are a number of familiar thriller tropes, including the vamp Madame de Lara (who is anything but French). However, there were also some unexpected elements. The introductory setup at the beginning was first rate in my opinion and there were setting descriptions which I felt had a slight modernist feel (which is also captured in the dreams Ross has):
‘Suddenly out of the darkness there sprang to view one lighted window… the window looked at Hugo with a square, bright eye; and then down came a blind like the dropping of a lid.’
‘He wondered what the house was like. He could see it only as a black, blank wall running up into a black, blank sky.’
Additionally, with a Wentworth novel the ending is expected to be akin to a fairy tale’s happy ending and in some respects this is true for this one. But I think she also does something a little bit different, a bit more ambiguous, though of course I won’t tell what it is. Overall this is a very action packed novel, which is at once familiar and unexpected and my only serious niggle is that the ending is a little too rushed and there are the odd gushy moments. This is not a story where you will find verisimilitude or an enquiry into the darker side of humanity, but what you will find is a delightful few hours of entertainment full of surprises and drama, which will bring a smile to your face and just maybe make you rethink about Wentworth as a writer.