Dress Down Sunday: Mr Zero by Patricia Wentworth

published 1938


Mr Zero 1

They were in Marcia Thrale’s bedroom at the Luxe. It was a riotous orgy of pink. Everything that could be pink had been painted, upholstered, or draped in that colour. Mercifully, a good deal of it was obscured by the boxes, the dresses, the hats, coats, shoes, stockings, and gloves which Marcia was taking to Java. Gay had firmly made a place for herself on the edge of the rose-coloured bed, Marcia, in a pink satin dressing-gown, having already annexed the only armchair. Marcia was like that. It ran in the family, because Sylvia was like it too—only more so. But then Sylvia was a lovely, and everyone had always spoiled her. Marcia wasn’t bad-looking when you saw her away from Sylvia, but nobody would ever look at her if they could look at Sylvia instead, so Marcia hadn’t really got the same excuse.

commentary: As in Molly Thynne’s The Crime at the Noah’s Ark – see blogpost helpfully entitled ‘Creeping round the Inn in a Xmas-y Manner’ – this is a book in which no-one can stay still in his or her bedroom. They have to be forever changing in and out of nighties, putting on dressing gowns, having baths and hair washings which are interrupted by phonecalls: and of course they must creep out of the bedroom, and wander round the old house late at night, or else drive miles through the night to be at the scene of the crime. It is wholesale, and very entertaining.
Sylvia put on a white embroidered chiffon nightdress and sat down on the edge of her wide, low bed to take off her slippers.
But will she get into bed and stay put? She will not.
She trailed her white crepe dressing-gown down to the next flight. From there she could see the hall, and a corner of the fireplace, and the dining-room door.
…and nothing good in any of them. She never learns. And then there is the classic Golden Age question of your excuse for wandering around in the middle of the night:
She thought of what she would say if Francis met her….Biscuits—yes, that would do—she was hungry and thought she would like a biscuit. She wondered if anyone ever really ate biscuits in the middle of the night—so dry and crumby. Perhaps it had better be orange juice, or a book—but she hardly ever did read anything, and if Francis didn’t believe her, it might be very frightening indeed.
Sylvia shows surprising self-knowledge here. She is a complete dimwit – she is worthy of a Georgette Heyer crime novel – with apparently no real moral framework. She gets everyone into a huge amount of trouble. Gay is her friend, much more sensible. (Though this sentence worried me for a while: ‘Gay, racketing talk went to and fro.’ If you are going to give characters names that are also ordinary words, please be more careful.)

Mr Zero is a standalone – no Miss Silver to cough politely and polish up a hideous brooch – and is more of a romantic thriller. There is a farrago of missing documents, blackmail (two lots – there is the very Agatha Christie trope of a late murder of someone who knew too much about the crime and tried to make money from it), house parties, the Home Secretary, dancing in nightclubs. It is splendid stuff, though no modern reader is likely to miss the guilty party, or worry that the main romantic couple will not overcome their problems.

Sylvia, in her mind-boggling silliness, has got herself into a serious mess, and the reason I downloaded this book was because those TEMPTERS at Dean St Press picked out this quote to advertise their re-publication of the book:
‘…she is in this awful jam. She really did look pretty ghastly. I mean she’d got on the wrong stockings for her dress, and her lipstick all crooked, so I think things are pretty grim.’
So you do see why I had to read it.

If I had a complaint it would be that there is too much pointless repetitious discussion of minor details (the exact layout of the yew walk, the exact series of events when the letter was stolen – we already KNOW at that stage what happened, so blah blah blah) and instead there should have been A LOT more of this kind of thing:
“Nonsense!” said Colonel Anstruther. “You’re talking as if young women are reasonable creatures. They’re not. They don’t reason at all. They don’t think, except about their face-creams and their frocks. I’ve got three daughters and I know.” 

Inspector Boyce maintained a rigid decorum. Nobody but their father would have suspected the Misses Anstruther of devotion to frocks or face-creams. They were plain, meek women who did as they were told and left their faces as nature had most unfortunately made them.
But those frocks were truly excellent….
Mr Zero 3….She was wearing a shawl now, bright green and Spanish, and her very full black taffeta skirts swept the floor. 
…She wore a pale gold frock. She had a radiance. 
…She saw a very tall, very thin woman with flaming hair and flaming lipstick in a long sheath-like garment which looked as it if was made of sheet cooper. Strands of copper wire were wound about her arms from shoulder to wrist. Her open sandals disclosed orange toe-nails. 
Mr Zero 2
…‘you never saw anything like her clothes—too too of course, but dreams. She had an evening dress all white and gold patent leather.’

A few sample 30s evening dresses from Kristine’s photostream.

And hat tips again to Dean St Press, and to Curt Evans who wrote an introduction to these new editions of Wentworth’s non-Silver books – there are plenty of them available now.


  1. Replies
    1. I know! They tempted me, and now I am passing it on...

  2. I have been wondering about trying a standalone by Wentworth someday. I think I bought one at the book sale this year. But I just got started back in the Miss Silver books so more interested in those right now.

    1. Fair enough - I generally read the Miss Silver books too, but this one caught the attention with the stockings and lipstick.

  3. This does sound like an enjoyable read, Moira. I just have this fabulous mental picture now of people forever changing in and out of different loungewear and walking in and out of their rooms and all over the house. I have to agree with you, too, about Dean Street Press. Kudos to them for bringing back these stories.

    1. I know, Margot, so different from our own lives - I think! It's part of the fun of reading these books to be exasperated by their decisions and moves...

  4. They don't make them like this any more, do they, Moira? Neither the books nor the clothes. These days she'd be wandering around the house in an old t-shirt or maybe some brushed cotton pjs.

    1. Yes indeed Chrissie - and I also think sometimes, when I was a young thing living in shared houses and doing a lot of visiting, I wore completely unsuitable nightwear to scramble to the bathroom in the night. In the deep peace of my own place, I am covered from neck to ankle to wrist in solid material, because warmth comes first. I could become a Puritan in my current winter nightwear.

  5. I may have something by her on the pile, but I'm in no rush to get to it.

    1. TBH, of all the crime authors I enjoy and blog on regularly, I think she might be the least point of crossover with you!


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