The setup in this novel is like quite a few other Wentworth novels. There is a household and a family who are far from happy, their hatred closing in one central figure. This time it is not the family patriarch, Jimmy Latter, but the patriarch’s wife, Lois. Lois is a woman who has to have everything her own way, though of course she persuades others like her husband that it is actually the best for everyone. It is not for nothing that we are told in the opening pages that she was ‘mistress of herself, of her thoughts, of her life. Very much mistress of Jimmy Latter, Jimmy Latter’s thoughts and Jimmy Latter’s life.’ She works Jimmy’s stepsister Elle Street and household institution Minnie Mercer to the bone, looking after the house – though of course she reminds them of how grateful they ought to be for living there. Further tension arises when Anthony Latter, Jimmy’s cousin returns. It was Anthony, Lois preferred, but it was Jimmy who had the money. However it soon seems Lois wants to have her cake and eat it when it comes to the men in her life – though whether they will play ball is the question. Unsurprisingly there are a myriad of other ways Lois gets other people’s backs up, including Julia Vane’s; the sister of Elle, who is infuriated at how her sister is treated and how this is affecting Elle’s marriage. During the first half of the novel, when everyone’s anger levels are on the rise with Lois, culminating in Jimmy finally seeing Lois for what she is, Lois herself experiences a number of vomiting attacks, experiences which cause her some concern. After all the novel does open with her visiting a fortune teller telling her to beware of poison. They cannot tell her if she should guard against a man, a woman or even herself and like the prophecies of the witches in Macbeth, the fortune teller’s word are dangerously ambiguous.
Whilst Miss Silver does enter the story briefly at this point, she does not arrive at Latter End, until Lois’ demise, which unsurprisingly is via poison. All of the secrets and grudges of the household are brought to light via the family members themselves or by the eavesdropping maid, who relishes the scandal of it all. When Miss Silver does get to the scene of the crime she is pleasantly surprised that her old friends Chief Inspector Lamb and Sergeant Abbott are investigating it also.
One thing that I noticed was when it came to the character of Miss Silver, was how scenes involving her often seem paralleled with ones that had just occurred. For instance there is a scene where Lois is mentally redecorating Jimmy’s home and the narrative comments on the changes she has already made. The scene which follows this is our first featuring Miss silver and it felt paralleled for me because of the way Miss Silver too looks around her room and mentally decides on changes she wants to make. However this similarity is used I think to highlight a greater difference. Miss Silver is making changes to something which is completely hers and these are changes that she plans to save up her. Whereas in many ways what Lois is doing to Latter End is against the will of others and from what we know of Lois she hardly goes in for delayed gratification.
Another thing which perked my interest in this story was that although this is the usual Wentworth Miss Silver formula, there was an intriguing change. Normally the clients who visit Miss Silver either become the victims or are young men or women who can provide a clear viewpoint on the people involved in their predicament. Yet this is not the case in this tale, as it is Jimmy who goes to see Miss Silver when Lois has her vomiting attacks. At this stage his viewpoint is still a myopic one, Lois can do no wrong. So it is interesting to see how Miss Silver can still find glimmers of the reality in what Jimmy says and her advice at that point is rather telling.
Like in many other Miss Silver novels there are always the characters who underestimate her. In this case it is Anthony in particular who when picking Miss Silver up at the train station:
‘concluded that poor old Jimmy must have had a complete mental breakdown. Nothing else would account for importing this dowdy elderly spinster into his tragic affairs. She looked like a composite portrait of the Victorian governess, and she talked like it too […]’
However a matter of pages later his viewpoint has quickly changed ‘the impression he had received […being] of an intelligence keener than his own, a controlled and ordered thought, a cool authority.’ There is also an interesting moment when Anthony tries to comprehend both of these starkly different stances:
‘He had for the moment a sense of double vision – of two Miss Silvers indefinitely linked, and then quite suddenly, as if by some focusing action of the mind, quite definitely merged. There was only one Miss Silver, but she was not what he had taken her for.’
For me this speaks of the duality sleuths, especially amateur spinster sleuths, like Miss Silver and Miss Marple often have. Yet this quote emphasises the need to not separate the deceptive exterior and the keener internal intellect of such sleuths. It is not a case of there being a false Miss Silver or Miss Marple and a genuine one, as suspects often perceive or if there is a false one it is only in the minds of others. But I think this is something even readers can fall into the habit of doing, dismissing the externals of such sleuths as mere camouflage for the much more interesting sleuthing mind contained within. I felt this comment implied a more holistic way of looking at such detecting figures.
As I hinted at in my opening of this post, this story has all the familiar tropes and character setups. The younger wife who is monstrously awful to the dependents, who themselves are under a great deal of strain, but unable to resolve their plight. And to begin with this familiar setup was fine. I was in the mood for an easy and gentle read and Wentworth does know how to tell a story. However, a common problem with the Wentworth Miss Silver novels began to arise in the second half of the book. The pace whilst manageably slow in the first half, became unbearably so in the second. The solution, whilst actually very clever, is just thrown into our laps 70 pages before the end and makes all the investigative work done previously seem rather redundant. The redundancy continues as the story drags on painfully after the solution is officially revealed and to be honest even the well-established component of young romance is perfunctorily and even at times ham-fistedly done, by Wentworth’s usual standards. Unfortunately all of this pulled my finally rating of this story down.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Jewellery
Who Pays the Piper? (1940)
Silence in Court (1945)
The Key (1946)
The Fingerprint (1959)