Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl – a recent reread

I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been my ‘thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my favourites by a very long chalk, with Patricia a wee bit out in front.

Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands—literally–of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather tired and old-fashioned by today’s standards?

Obviously I don’t believe they are tired and old-fashioned. I mean, yes, the author styles are out of touch with our era, and the roles and attitudes of characters are sometimes really horrifying. But for me, it’s the irresistible lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Christie’s Miss Marple often comments, ‘you see every aspect of life in a small village.’ And what we need to remember is that these stories were written, some of them, almost hundred years ago, and were fresh, new and very exciting at that time—the plots weren’t overdone or overused – they were more or less brand new, and I’m sure at the time, many of the plots would have seemed innovative.

Patricia Wentworth’s works are a wee bit tamer and even more moralistic than Agatha Christie’s, but we need to remember that there is a little over twenty years between their dates of birth, so I would definitely place Wentworth squarely in the previous generation of mid-Victorian Britain. Like many of Christie’s settings, Wentworth’s stories often revolve around a country house, and a small village, and her sleuth, Miss Silver is in many respects quite similar to Miss Marple. I like a village or country house setting; for me it’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of, if rather posher than me!) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes horribly wrong.

I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s many more times than that, although I’m still working my way through her non-series books. I have five or six different copies of some of Wentworth’s books, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it. (Clue 1: It cost nearly as much as my wedding dress. Clue 2: I got married in 1981 and my wedding dress didn’t cost nearly as much as it would have done today, but even so my mother gasped…)

I recently decided to reread The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes for my own fun/blog writing at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink!

The Chinese Shawl was published in 1943, placing it in the latter third of Wentworth’s writing career. Her first novel, a romance, was published in 1910. She died at the beginning of 1961.

There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)

Point 1. Wentworth is a great one for setting the scene. Her murders seldom happen as quickly as, for example, Christie’s. We get a lot of background—sometimes I feel maybe there’s too much, but it does mean that by the time the reader reaches the murder scene, they know the main characters quite well, and are deeply immersed in the story. The murder quite often doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the book, and sometimes we don’t meet the sleuth, Miss Silver, until that point, and often even later, although in this one, she is already there, in situ as a house guest, from chapter ten.

I also feel quite often in Wentworth’s books, that you can see the murder coming. But it’s not in an annoying, ‘Der—I knew that was going to happen’ kind of way. It’s more like watching a car crash in slow motion: you can see the inevitable outcome and are powerless to stop it. You can only watch it happen in a kind of fascinated horror. (Not that they are gory or horrifying in that sense.)

Point 2. The ‘sleuth’ is Miss Maud Silver. Like Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Silver is an elderly lady, a retired former governess who primly knits her way through interviews and afternoon teas and picks up all sorts of gossip, clues and insights as she does so. She is an acute observer of human life, and a highly moral, highly principled person. In fact sometimes she’s a bit annoying in her manner which can seem outmoded by today’s standards. But she is a treasure, too. Her main advantage is that she is often ignored, overlooked or just plain underestimated. Miss Silver often makes remarks that I find hilarious, such as this one from Lonesome Road (pub. 1939) ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’ Men as a breed are for Miss Silver largely a closed book. She remarks somewhere that the chief difference between men and women is that men require two eggs for breakfast instead of one. 

Point 3. In this book, the victim is not a very nice person, and so it’s hard to mourn her fate. But Wentworth never condones murder or violence, and even in the death of a nasty piece of work, there is a righteous indignation and a determination to get to the bottom of things. For Wentworth and her detectives, nothing ever justifies murder, and that’s a position I thoroughly applaud.

Point 4. Obviously, we have a sidekick. Usually a sidekick is a ‘Watson’ type character. In this case, it’s the official investigator – Randal March. He is not my favourite sidekick for Miss Silver—he is arrogant, pompous and (usually) far too self-satisfied. But then, maybe that’s more realistic for the era? All I can say is, thank goodness for Miss Silver, his former governess, as she usually takes him down a peg of two. In this book he has risen to the rank of Superintendent. When it comes to a supporting cast for Miss Silver, I prefer her other sidekick, Sergeant Frank Abbott, and if absolutely necessary, I can even put up with Abbott’s boss, Inspector Ernest Lamb, who is devoted to his three daughters. It’s a refreshing change to have a detective who is a family man with no massive issues.

Point 5. There is a wealth of period detail in this book, from fashion and etiquette to black-out regulations of WW2. I love this stuff, we get a really strong sense of the era and feel so deeply entrenched in the book. There is always a strong romantic, (quite an old-fashioned, polite romance,) thread running through the mystery. What I particularly like is the contrast between the dutiful ‘war work’ of bitter Miss Agnes Fane and that of Miss Silver:

Miss Fane surveyed it (Miss Silver’s knitting) with disfavour.

‘You should be knitting comforts for the troops.’

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

‘Babies must have vests,’ she remarked in a mild but stubborn tone.

For me this sums up perfectly the difference between Miss Silver and Agnes Fane, the alpha female of the story. Agnes Fane is all about being seen to be right and perfect in every way, and above reproach. She craves status, yet her heart is in many ways cold though obsessive. Miss Silver, dowdy, slightly irritating, definitely overly moralistic and governessy, nevertheless does everything she does from a place of love, which is why, for me, she is the best sleuth. She is devoted to her former charges, their loved ones and their growing families.

And lest we forget, she’s a working girl, a gentlewoman come down in the world due the premature death of her parents and the very real need to earn her own living. Unlike, for example, Miss Marple, she is not an amateur detective who does it because she’s nosy or in the right place at the right time, she hires herself out at a decent rate as a ‘private enquiry agent’. This has given her the means to afford a nice flat in London and a maid to take care of her. Girl power! She don’t need no man!

Point 6. As in any good mystery, there are a number of suspects. The murdered woman leaves behind her a slew of cast aside lovers, a divorced husband, the wife of a cast aside lover and another chap’s girlfriend, not to mention other possibilities. It seems as though almost anyone could have carried out the dastardly deed. And then of course, comes the twist—maybe she was killed by mistake? That leaves the already wide door thrown even wider. Who killed her, and why?

Point 7. Actually, when I said sidekick, I should have said sidekicks, because front and centre in this story is our heroine, Laura Fane, and her new beau, a former lover of the murder victim, all-round war hero, Carey Desborough. Actually the romance between these two flourishes within the space of a day or two—it is love at first sight, and it’s essential for the lovebirds that they help Miss Silver get to the bottom of the crime so everyone can live happily ever after. Well, almost everyone. And a rather unbelievable attempt to set up first one of these as the baddie then the other fails to convince the reader, and so we know we can rest happily in the fact of their happiness.

Point 8. Really my only criticism of Wentworth’s books generally, and this one in particular is her frequent use of that hateful tool ‘the had I but known/little did they know’. I hate this ploy with a passion. And it crops up here several times. On top of that, we almost always have a phrase along the lines of ‘little did they know but the events of that evening were to be sifted and gone over with the utmost care, and everything they did and said would be held up to the light and examined.’ *sigh* Moving on…

Point 9. Wentworth loves a dramatic ending. And so do I. Although I knew ‘whodunnit’ because I’ve read this book loads of times, I still savoured the outcome. There is too, generally a nice ‘wrap-up’ scene where the good guys take tea with Miss Silver at the end and she expounds and moralises, a good egg teaching her pupils. This one is slightly different as the wrap-up is with Randal March, but it’s still good to get insight into their thoughts about the crime and its resolution. And of course, the two lovebirds go off together into the sunset, but it’s a slightly scaled back happiness—after all, there’s still a war on. A very satisfying ending.

As a review, I know this isn’t much cop. I’m hopeless at reviewing, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done. Enjoy!

Other of Wentworth’s best works include:

Lonesome Road

The Listening Eye

The Alington Inheritance

The Clock Strikes Twelve

And there are loads more, both series, and non-series.

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