Having read a few Miss Silver novels I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Why should World War 2 make this novel any different from the others which come before it? Surely there will be a country house and at least one or two courting couples who have to cope with the eruption of violence in their midst, which inevitably leads to a number of misunderstandings that our faithful private investigator, Miss Maud Silver, has to unravel as well as solving the murders. Yet seemingly this World War 2 novel set on the rural home front, with one clear romantic subplot appears to do just that. This is not normal Wentworth.
The Key (1946) from what I can gather in text, is set some time in 1945 and it begins with scientist and Jewish refugee Michael Harsch deciding to not cross at some traffic lights, a decision which would cost three people their lives and ‘the lives of four others were to be deeply and radically altered.’ It is because of this decision that Michael sees someone he thought was dead, an experience he ultimately brushes off, thinking overwork has led to him seeing this ‘ghost’. Yet from this very first chapter we are aware that the figure they have seen is alarmed and has a confederate who is close to Michael. And it seems as though these two will be prepared to do whatever is necessary to make sure Michael can’t foil them. It is therefore not surprising that in the very next chapter Michael is dead. However, it is presumed to be a suicide. He had lost his daughter and wife to Nazi violence and he had also just finished his invention of a new explosive. A gun is found by his side at the church organ he was playing and the church itself is locked with one of the church door keys, of which one is in Michael’s pocket. The inquest supposes that having finished his work and being reminded of his lost family he decided to end his life. However, Sir George Rendel of the War Office thinks differently, finding the fact that he died the day before he was to hand over his formulas and notes to them more than just a coincidence. But who wanted to prevent this from happening? To begin with he sends down Major Garth Albany to ferret out information, since he has relations who live in the same village. Heading the suspects list is the legatee of everything Michael owned, fellow scientist Evan Madoc; a rude and opinionated man who is also a pacifist. There is also Albany’s aunt’s companion, Medora Brown, who Albany mentally nicknames the ‘female Spanish Inquisitor.’ Her behaviour is far from unsuspicious including mysterious night-time walks. Moreover, within the village is a naturalised German, who in the last war was approached by the German foreign office to do some spy work on their behalf. He refused then but has he been approached since?
Albany’s investigation begins well, picking up crucial information from the inquest, particularly about the four keys to the church door and he soon realises some irregularities in who used them. Furthermore testimony from unexpected sources also leads to a lot of incriminating evidence being uncovered which has to be explained. Yet this is not a purely amateur investigation, as Chief Detective Inspector Lamb and DS Abbott join the case, making an early arrest. This of course soon means Miss Silver gets brought in by people involved in the case who think the police have got it wrong. A lot of red herrings have to be discarded before the mystery is finally solved, yet this is one killer who won’t go down without a fight.
Often Wentworth’s mysteries are not that complicated and can be quite easy to solve, as the list of suspects remains quite small as young lovers are invariably innocent. However, I think this is one of the strongest mysteries I have read by Wentworth, with the war time backdrop and variety of detective figures being effectively used and the central murder involves a more wide spread group of people. I think this makes the case more interesting to read about and it also means that the romance element is less intense. I was initially worried when I saw this book had a scientist/war theme, fearing one of Christie’s poorer thrillers. However, this fear was allayed and Wentworth pulls it off well, sticking to what she knows and not over doing the political/espionage angle. Miss Silver is also an engaging sleuth to follow once she enters the book (about half way through) and my favourite description of her comes from Albany’s point of view:
‘He became aware of a thought penetrating and illuminating whatever it touched. The prim, old-maidish manner which was its cloak began by amusing him, but before long the amusement changed to something not unlike discomfort. He felt a little as if he had picked up an old lady’s work-bag and found it to contain a bomb.’
This is quite an apt description as Miss Silver gives the readers and characters quite a number of surprises. Something else which interested me was that in the village there is only one phone line so if you pick up your receiver you can eavesdrop on people’s telephone conversations, which happens in the book, leading to devastating consequences. This is a trope which comes up in other Wentworth novels, as another invalid character in The Finger Print (1959) obtains prime information from listening into people’s phone calls.
All in all an entertaining read, with Wentworth’s usual good story telling skills, but with I think a better central mystery for the reader to get their teeth into.
See also my other Wentworth novel reviews:
Fool Errant (1929)
Who Pays the Piper? (1940)
Silence in Court (1945)
The Finger Print (1959)