The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

published 1943

Chinese Shawl 1

She frowned at herself in the glass. The dark hair fell curling on her neck. It might be the fashion, but it made her look about sixteen. There was a jade pendant which Oliver Fane had brought from China for his wife Lilian, a peach with two leaves and a little winged creature crawling on it. Laura pulled it out of her handkerchief-case and slipped the black silk cord over her head. Her mother had never worn it, because Oliver died that leave. The bright green fruit hung down nearly to her waist. The cord made her neck look very white. She threw her Chinese shawl across her shoulders, and felt the momentary thrill it always gave her. Oliver had brought that too, and it was such a lovely thing – black ground and deep black fringe, every inch of the ground worked over in a pattern of fantastic loveliness and all the colours of a fairy tale.

commentary: I almost feel I needn’t write anything about this book: my friend Noah Stewart did one of his laser-like posts on it recently, which made me read the book (FIRST – his post is full of spoilers, you must read the book first) and he said all that was necessary, but in the end I can’t NOT write about a book with that name, and my post will not contain spoilers, and will concentrate on less important aspects of the murder story.

It is a quite splendid example of a Miss Silver book, a kind of ur-text. There are young women, romantic men, long-ago feuds, broken engagements, wonderful clothes. People wander round the house in the middle of the night (you know what we think of that as exemplified in another Wentworth, and many other books of the era) – a classic vintage reason pops up in this one:
The wind kept him awake and he read till he had finished his book. Then he thought he’d go down and get another.
Nobody ever has enough reading material in his or her room, it is always essential to go downstairs and find something. (Probably a murderer, a blackmailer, or the secret plans for the submarine.)

All this is heightened by a not-too-obtrusive wartime setting, and Miss Silver herself sitting coughing in the corner (22 times in this book) as everyone collects for a most uncomfortable country house party.

If a Golden Age detective story is called The Chinese Shawl, Chinese Shawl 2you can guess what one feature of this distinctive garment is going to be in terms of a murder – again, see previous comments – and all I will say is that the matter arises, and is considered as a possibility.

If it’s Patricia Wentworth, there will be people with strange names – Tanis Lyle, and mysteriously another character with the first name Lisle, and Petra and Carey.

There are excellent clothes:
She wore what any other lady might have worn in her own house at tea-time, a dress of some wine-coloured woollen stuff and a loose corduroy coat of the same shade. She had pearl studs in her ears, a string of pearls at her throat, and a fine ruby on the third finger of her right hand.
The others came in – Tanis in a gold house-coat, her eyes very green; Lucy Adams in one of those black satin dresses which look as if they had been slept in for years; Miss Silver in brown velveteen; the three men; and, flying in as the sound of the gong was dying away, Petra in sealing-wax red with her lips and nails made up to match.

Chinese Shawl 3

In fact the plot is more like a novel of the era, with Tanis a complete bitch who steals other people’s boyfriends, a budding love affair under threat, and the fate of the big house hanging in the balance. But of course there is a murder...

And there is a description of an oil painting of one character with this sentence:
A light switch dangled from one hand, and in the other she held an apple.
-I had to think hard to realize that the light switch is a riding crop, not some important electricals. And then – still on the artwork – there is one of those weird pronouncements about life, the ones where you wonder if Wentworth is making all this up or if people really thought like this:
They are valuable portraits, but I do not care for oil paintings in a bedroom.
As Noah says in his post, there is a lot to be said for these books: ‘There is always something diverting that [Patricia Wentworth] has to say about social issues, and even domestic economy, an interesting mystery to solve, and a light romantic plot that doesn’t strain credulity.’

And this is a particularly winning one - All the ingredients are familiar, but the way they are put together is excellent, and Laura and her romance are not as annoying as some of Wentworth’s efforts. And the evil Tanis is rather splendid.

The shawl should be worn over a black dress but I liked the top picture, which is Young woman in a shawl by Henri Lebasque, from the Athenaeum website.

Modern oriental cape design from the house of Alexander McQueen.

Group picture of posh wartime evening dressing is a very useful photo for me (used in a Wentworth post already): it is from Kristine’s photostream.


  1. I've always loved the way those Wentworth stories use those Golden Age tropes (the young lovers, wandering around a house late at night, identities, past relationships, etc...). And, as you say, there's Miss Silver, too. It's good to know all those ingredients work here. I'm also glad that the characters are done well. I have to confess, some of the (especially female) characters in other books in this series really annoy me. Perhaps that's just me...

    1. She had her moments! (and I could mean either Wentworth or Silver). There are so many books in the series that it's not surprising the quality varies a little - I am with you on that one. And she can do really good strong women, and others that are... less so...

  2. I really thought you had already done a post on this one. I always enjoy your posts on Wentworth's books, and I need to read another one soon.

    1. Tracy, I had to check myself after seeing Noah's post! I was sure I had at least read it, but no. Very glad I did pick it up.

  3. I thought this line "They are valuable portraits, but I do not care for oil paintings in a bedroom." kind of summed up Lucy Fane as a fundamentally shallow person, but also threw some light on Agnes Fane, who struck me as much worse than Tanis. Tanis was selfish and awful, but Agnes was the one who raised her in a poisoned house. Keeping both her ex-fiance's portrait and his wife's in her bedroom where she saw them every day for decades was incredibly unhealthy. Agnes was wealthy, she could have traveled or done something with her life rather than be a bitter recluse. She couldn't punish Oliver or Lilian with her behavior, so she punished everyone who couldn't get away from her.

    1. Excellent analysis Aurora, thank you very much.


Post a Comment