Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Today on the blog I am making another foray into the world of Wentworth’s non-Miss Silver novels, having already read Silence in Court (1945) and Fool Errant (1929), both of which showed a more innovative side to Wentworth. I wouldn’t say Who Pays the Piper? (1940) shows this side, but it does have Wentworth’s standard strong story telling skills, enjoyable characterisation and quite a wide cast of suspects, which means that the mystery or puzzle element of the story is more gripping. I also think the title of the book is particularly apt as this is a tale which has more than one character holding another in their power, hence paying the piper and therefore calling the tune of the character’s actions. In fact it is this situation which leads to murder.
Lucas Dale is a newcomer to the neighbourhood, having bought King’s Bourne house. Mrs O’Hara, her daughter, Cathleen and her niece Susan Lennox used to live there, but once Mrs O’Hara’s brother died they were forced to sell up due to all the debts he left. They now live in a cottage close by and Cathleen is Dale’s social secretary. Dale is a self-made man and he opens this story with the phrase ‘I always get what I want,’ which pretty much sums up his character and at the moment what he wants is Susan Lennox, as he is in love with her. The only snag for him is that she is engaged to and is in love with the comparatively poorer architect Bill Carrick. Yet Dale’s can do attitude does not see this as an immoveable obstacle. Knowing the state of Cathleen’s health and Susan’s devotion to her, Dale frames Cathleen with the theft of some pearls, giving Susan the ultimatum that if she doesn’t marry him, he’ll call the police. Convinced that Cathleen would never cope with a court trial (she seems to be a very sensitive and nervous person who easily collapses under stress and strain), especially since her innocence would be hard to prove, Susan reluctantly agrees.
Understandably Bill is far from impressed when Susan breaks off their engagement and when he finds out the real reason why he threatens to kill Dale, storming off to his house. Susan shortly follows him, hearing a gun shot. When she arrives at King’s Bourne, Bill tells her Dale is dead, shot through the back of the head. He claims he didn’t do it. Yet unfortunately for him, the vicar’s wife heard him threatening to kill Dale and on the face of it Bill and Susan have good reasons for wanting Dale dead. However, they were not the only ones who might have wanted him dead as Dale was recently seen and heard to be having altercations with an old business partner and with his former wife, who just so happens to be a sharpshooter. This takes the attention off Bill and Susan for a time, but sadly for them this does not last for long as circumstantial evidence puts both of them in an awkward position, not the least because they were the only ones who claimed to have heard the shot, as in typical Golden Age detective fiction fashion, the other inhabitants of Dale’s home were listening to loud records or running baths with noisy pipes.
Inspector Lamb and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott (who appears in some of the Miss Silver novels) are in charge of the case and at least for Bill and Susan, Abbott does not believe they are guilty. Although it is interesting that Lamb accuses Abbott of snobbery, suggesting that he does not think them guilty due to their social position and the fact he likes them. Moreover, a bit like the reader, Abbott is also accused of wanting the killer to be someone he doesn’t like.
As I mentioned earlier, Wentworth’s characterisation skills are in full force in this story and I liked how she described some of her female characters. For example we have the Vicar’s wife, who is said to have ‘the air of a hen confronted by a worm of some unknown species… her expression became that of a hen with grave moral scruples.’ There is also Mrs O’Hara, an invalid who enjoys her ill health in true Jane Austen style, as it gives her power over other people and it is said that ‘she played with them as a girl plays with her dolls,’ and this telling phrase is apparent in much of Mrs O’Hara’s future behaviour in the story. In particular, after the murder she repeatedly says she thinks it was suicide, despite the fact it would have been physically impossible. This drives Bill to distraction leading to him giving a class critique:
‘She prefers to think he committed suicide, so he did. What a mind! No, that’s wrong – she hasn’t got a mind. If she wants anything, it’s that way as far as she’s concerned. Last, lingering, horrible results of the feudal system. You see in their heyday, if they wanted anything they could just make it so. And it went to their heads. When the power was gone they put up a social camouflage and pretended they’d still got it. Would your Uncle James have admitted to a living soul that he was broke to the wide, and that he’d nothing to leave but debts and mortgages? Did he tell his own sister? You know he didn’t. He preferred to believe that it wasn’t true, just as Aunt Milly prefers to believe there hasn’t been a murder. They just can’t bring themselves to believe that they haven’t the power to control events.’
Bill’s view of Mrs O’Hara places her in a position of weakness and deluded impotence, yet I think it is intriguing that Mrs O’Hara undermines this at the end of the story. Additionally, Frank Abbott is enjoyable to read about as he makes amusing side remarks during his superior’s questioning of the suspects and the way other characters perceive him also interested me, as their impressions of him aren’t always that correct such as the maid’s thought that ‘he’s got eyes like bits of ice, and the sort of pale manner that makes you feel pale too.’
Unsurprisingly the death of Dale is not the end of the troubles as further violence and manipulation follows and Susan is left with the increasing fear that the culprit is a lot closer to home than she’d like. The choice of killer was a good one and wasn’t too easy to spot, as there were a number of suspicious suspects to pick from. However, what I didn’t like as much was the way the killer was finally found out, as I think the means used was a bit frustrating. I think it is worth a read as the characters are strong and the narrative flows easily, but I think the other two non-Miss Silver novels I have read were stronger.