published 1953 or 1950? Both dates given
Ray Fortescue got off her bus and walked up the street. She was wearing her new autumn suit, because nothing gives you so much confidence as to feel that you are looking your best. The suit was a success, and so was the little off-the-face hat that went with it. They were perfectly matched, and they were just two shades lighter than her dark brown hair. There was a spray of autumn leaves and berries on the hat, repeating the gay lipstick which went so well with the clear brown of her skin. She wasn’t a beauty, but she had her points, and she knew how to make the most of them. Her eyes were a clear amber with very dark lashes, and they were widely set. Her face showed balance, character, control, and she had the figure which most girls long for. It looked very well in the brown suit.
She wore a grey flannel coat and skirt and a white jumper.
An Empire mirror between two of the windows showed her her own image, a very handsome one in close-fitting black, which did full justice to her tall and upright figure. There was a double row of pearls and a diamond flower to relieve what was otherwise the extreme of severity. Very few women of her age could show such a faultless turn of neck and shoulder
comments: Lockdown reading – I find myself often unable to pick up whatever great book I have in hand. Often the only thing that will do is an old crime story. I have read Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, for a most enjoyable podcast over at the Invisible Event, with JJ and Brad.
As a result of that I moved on to Christianna Brand’s Tour De Force, one of my all-time favourites. And a Ngaio Marsh, False Scent - blogpost to follow.
But if I had to pick one author (and I am myself surprised by this) then the winner is Patricia Wentworth.
When times are hard, when there's a pandemic, when life is uncertain - step into Miss Silver's world, where a cough means only that you are about to say something significant, right and love will prevail, and you might get to wear a great hat.
Recently it was The Case is Closed and The Dower House. Now we have The Ivory Dagger.
The first note I wrote is this: ‘Completely irrelevant train crash AGAIN’. It’s not a criticism you would ever expect to write, and you might be surprised for it to be associated with such a cozy writer as P. Wentworth. But that’s how she rolls. The other train crash book was bizarrely, published the same year (or near it – date not clear on this one): so twice in one year, or at most 3 years, she thought ‘Oh I’ll put a train crash in it’ and then didn’t do anything with it. (It is in Through the Wall, and yes I am going to be mentioning till the end of time that the blogpost is legit called ‘Miss Silver’s Knickers’).
So will move on to the usual setting: a rich man who dominates all around him, and collects ivory items. A broken engagement. A house party and then a dinner party filled with people accumulating motives for murder. A midnight death... Very much Miss S’s kind of thing, and done with gusto and some unexpected turns. Wentworth’s young women fall into three categories: sirens, who are usually stupid. And feisty independent nice young (and occasionally older) women who are the heroines. And girls (there is no other word) who are of such surpassing silliness and nervousness and general idiocy that the mystery is why the murderer didn’t stop off and kill her on the way. There is one of the very worst examples of that last category in this book – the vacuous and vapid Lila – and yet there are glimmers of something more interesting, as she becomes the ivory potential bride of the very creepy Sir George. There are certainly arresting images of her – trying on her ivory wedding dress and fainting, then dressed in ivory and holding a knife. There are references to the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and that does not seem bathetic.
And yes another trope is that people have strange first names, such as Lila, and the sensible woman in this one is called Ray.
The plot did have various swerves and turns, and I surprised myself by being quite slow in guessing the murderer. (and there’s one feature that I am dying to spoiler but can’t...)
I chose this as my next Miss Silver after reading about it over on TracyK’s blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery – we had much the same reaction to it, that it wasn’t her best, but still not a bad read at all.
Always the reminder – the grey flannel ‘coat and skirt’ is what we would call a suit nowadays. It was a class indicator to call it that. The other phrase would be a ‘costume’. I would need blogfriend Lucy Fisher to tell me if that had any class indicator about it.
Wentworth always v interested in mourning, and in this case a suitcase of clothes has to be brought from London because one of the houseparty has no black clothes with her.
There is that regular feature of a certain kind of novel from years ago, one that makes us feel uncomfortable now: a man who has known someone since she was a little girl. Now that she is grownup, perhaps they will fall in love. No, try as we might, we don’t go for that these days.
The hideous bog-oak jewellery gets an outing here, and as I looked up a previous Wentworth blogpost for which I found a picture – it’s here – I came across a piece of self-plagiarism: in the 1946 Pilgrim’s Rest there is a character in ‘a skirt of russet tweed and a soft yellow jumper’. In this one a lady wears ‘a brown tweed skirt and a soft yellow cardigan and jumper’.
Miss Silver coughs 27 times.
Ray in her autumn suit from Kristine’s photostream.
Lila’s grey suit with white top from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.
Black dinner dress from Kristine again.
That's quite true, Moira. The Miss Silver mysteries evoke a time and place where everything feels safer and more dependable, if I can put it that way. There are definitely tropes there, that you almost welcome, because you know them (does that even make sense?). And there are those hats...ReplyDelete
Yes indeed - it's a safe space in Miss Silver's world. We very much know what we are letting ourselves in for. And we can also admire the hats.Delete
"The grey flannel ‘coat and skirt’ is what we would call a suit nowadays. It was a class indicator to call it that. The other phrase would be a ‘costume’. I would need blogfriend Lucy Fisher to tell me if that had any class indicator about it."
"Coat-and-skirt" - audiobook narrators always get that wrong, reading it as "the tweed coat, and skirt, that he liked her in". The term had gone out by my day. According to Jilly Cooper you don't call it a "skirt suit". We said "suit". Yes, "costume" would be right out!
False Scent! Flame chiffon and the "Saracen concealed curve"!
False Scent - yes, the enjoyable peripherals outdo the murder story, for sure.Delete
These terms and class indicators really are shibboleths aren't they? I always liked Nancy Mitford writing to Evelyn Waugh - after all the furore they had created over U and non-U - and saying she had been re-reading her early books and found them full of mirror, pardon, serviette.
I suppose 'False Perfume' would have been non-U!
What was so wrong with "costume"? Was it a term used by dressmakers and provincial ladieswear purveyors who carried on advertising "gowns and mantles"?ReplyDelete
No idea, but your guess sounds right. Presumably there is nothing intrinsic about these things, it's who uses them. (Apart from fish knives...)Delete
Thanks very much for the mention. That is a lovely description of Ray Fortescue's clothes and I enjoyed that introduction to her character in the book.ReplyDelete
I can understand the criticism's of those who don't like the Miss Silver series, but I still love them. Even the ones that are not favorites. I like to see how Miss Silver gets called in to work on the case. I like the different attitudes that Frank Abbott and Chief Inspector Lamb have of Miss Silver and her involvement (when they both appear). And much more.
I used 1950 as the date of publication based on the information in the copy I read. But I have noticed discrepancies (or confusion?) in dates for some of Wentworth's other books. And of course any edition can have errors. At one of the posts at The Passing Tramp, with a list of Wentworth's books, he lists it as 1951.
The publication dates are surprisingly confused and confusing...Delete
I am very much reading these books out of order, which I don't think matters much, except I wonder if the relation with Abbott and Lamb changes. Also, I have now read the one where Randall meets his wife-to-be...
Fascinating! To clarify - to call something a 'coat and skirt' indicated that you were upper class? I'm just a little confused, though fascinated, by that point. Thank you!ReplyDelete
As Lucy and I discuss above - all this was entirely made-up, just a way of excluding people. But it did exist, your choice of words might brand you as lower-class. Ridiculous, but there were undoubtedly people who were on the lookout for the 'wrong' words so they could judge people...Delete
I have fond memories of reading some of the Miss Silver mysteries in the days of my youth, particularly as they were readily available from local library at the time. Your first picture also reminds me of the type of suit my mother and her sister used to wear back in the 1940s and '50s. Very chic. An era when tailoring was very much in fashion...ReplyDelete
Yes - I love those very tailored fitted suits, very much a 'look'. I had one I wore to a punk-y nightclub in the 1980s, much admired. Very high heels essential to complete the look. (And a hat really, but not in the 1980s)Delete
In a difficult world, Miss Silver provides something unchanging and comforting...
I always felt rather sorry for Lila, poor girl. She wasn't the brightest thing around, but she was raised by a bully and a pushover. At least her husband was a kind man who knew her and didn't expect her to be anyone else.ReplyDelete
I agree with you Aurora, Lila wasn't the simpleton you might expect at first glance - there was some nuance in this book.Delete