[The family is assembling for dinner, New Year’s Eve 1941]
[Grace Paradine was] a fine, ample figure of a woman – not handsome, but sufficiently imposing in a black dinner-gown and a light fur wrap. There was a diamond star at her breast, and a pearl dog collar with diamond slides about her throat.
[Phyllida] came along the passage in a long white dress. She wore the string of pearls which had been her twenty-first birthday present – fine pearls, very carefully matched. They were her only ornament.
[Lydia says:] ‘I wanted to come in my new brocade trousers – gorgeous furniture stuff and no coupons – but Frank lectured me and Irene lectured me till my spirit was broken, so here I am all jeune fille in a skirt.’ ...The skirt cleared the floor and stood out rather stiff. It was of heavy cream satin, and there was nothing at all jeune fille about it. It was worn with a top of gold brocade, high in the neck and long in the sleeve…
Beside her, her sister Irene looked dowdy and washed out. Lydia caught Phyllida by the arm and swung her round. ‘Look at Irene in that old black rag! Isn’t she an awful warning?’
Elliot Wray, coming into the room, looked down the length of it to the group of black and white figures about the glowing hearth. They were small and far away – black figures and white figures of the women, black-and-white figures of the men.
commentary: This is my book of 1944 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at his blog Past Offences.
In terms of its era, the book keeps dodging in and out of wartime: there’s the odd mention of rationing – I for one was very disappointed that Lydia didn’t wear her trousers (made from furnishing fabric, so no coupons used up) but thought one of these pictures would give a clue as to how she might have looked in them. And Miss Silver has very limited colours to choose from for her endless knitting wool. The family engineering firm at the heart of book is making something top secret for the war effort, but everybody is far more interested in snubbing each other than in worrying about the missing plans. And I was surprised by the huge quantities of food on offer at this grand dinner, with no mention of difficulties:
The epergne was lifted to the sideboard, to be replaced upon the bare mahogany by a ritual display of hot-house grapes, stem ginger, and apples on silver dishes. Heavy cut-glass decanters with port, sherry, and madeira were placed in front of James Paradine.
Mind you, there’s something off-kilter about the last bit – I don’t think posh dinner parties usually ended with mixed biscuits and chocolate fingers. It’s like a child’s version of how they think a smart dinner might be.
Louisa set down the cake-stand, which contained a Christmas cake in the bottom tier, and in the other two mixed biscuits and chocolate fingers.
I assumed wrongly that someone was going to be sideswiped by the heavy ‘monstrous silver epergne’, a weapon in waiting if ever I heard of one, as it is mentioned an unnecessary five times. In case you (tut!) don’t regularly use one for pizza suppers at home, I will tell you that it is a big heavy centrepiece, usually silver, for flowers or fruit. If they’d used this one they could have filled it with the hothouse fruits instead of moving it:
And there’s one interesting sidelight on the economics of the time:
There was quite a brisk market for [precious] stones…. Our leading moneygrubbers were feeling nervous about the prospects of a capital levy after the war, and were putting the stuff [ie their money] into diamonds.The plot – well, James Paradine announces over dinner that he knows someone in the family has been up to no good, and they must come and confess. He retires to his study, and by the time the clock strikes 12 he is dead. As it turns out, almost no-one had the sense to keep away – all were wandering round the house all night. The only person to have created an alibi also creates suspicion – he was looking for an alibi to show he hadn’t confessed anything, which makes no sense at all, although everyone seems to accept it as jolly sensible of him.
(It is all reminiscent of the beginning of PC Wren’s splendid Beau Geste, where the Blue Water jewel must be returned in the night - otherwise the entire family must join the Foreign Legion.)
Annoying Miss Silver, with her coughing and her knitting, doesn’t arrive till nearly half-way in, possibly a point in the book’s favour. When the family is thinking of consulting her, there is this:
‘You can say she’s an extra secretary. Nobody need know.’
Worthy of Georgette Heyer. The solution of an earlier book is mentioned several times in these discussions (‘you remember, she helped catch that woman X over the Y House murders’). I suppose this might not be a spoiler – I haven’t read that book - but it certainly reads like one.
‘I won’t play a trick on the family – it might do for the servants.’
This time Miss S, unusually, does give reasons for her conclusions, shows her working – normally her solutions seem to come to her like psychic prophecies.
And she almost makes a joke – Irene tells her what a pity it is that Lydia doesn’t marry -
and settle down in Birleton – it would be so nice to have someone to leave her children with. Even a slight knowledge of [Lydia] discouraged Miss Silver from believing that this would prove an inducement, but she took care not to say so.And amongst the other splendid clothes, there’s this:
Miss Silver, as was her custom, had changed into a two-year-old summer dress – green artificial silk with a distressing pattern of orange dots and dashes, the front adorned by a large cameo brooch depicting an apocryphal Greek gentleman in a helmet.Oh for a photo of the ensemble, and full marks to the author for the word ‘distressing’.
****ADDED LATER: This, from blogfriend Bill Selnes, is surely the brooch...
I enjoyed the book – my notes say ‘perky for Wentworth’ – I liked the relationships and the sparky dialogue. All round, an entertaining mystery, with some nice 1940s details.
There are plenty of other Patricia Wentworth books on the blog.
Pictures from Kristine’s photostream – I thought the group of women were in the spirit of the party above.