The Case of William Smith by Patricia Wentworth

published 1948





 

Katharine dressed for her wedding with as much care as if the congregation in whose face she was going to be married to William

would fill the church and set up the highest possible standard of distinction and elegance, instead of consisting of Abigail Salt and Mrs. Bastable, together with any stray passerby who might scent a wedding and drop in to see the bride. The dress, of rather a deep shade of blue, threw up her skin and brought out the gold lights in her hair. The long matching coat with the touch of fur at the neck was soft and warm. The small hat, hardly more than a cap, was made of the same stuff, with an odd little knot of the fur.




 

All of a sudden he remembered that it was at the party where he had seen William Smith, whom he recalled not as William or Smith, but simply Bill. Bill – and a girl in a gold dress. Up to this moment they were the only two whom he could have sworn to out of all the guests who must have been present, and now, like two bits of a jigsaw puzzle slipping into place, Mildred and George came into the picture. He even remembered that Mildred had worn pink. With the barest possible interval, he heard himself say, ‘It was here at the Luxe, just before the war – somebody’s party. But I can’t remember whose. I can’t remember anyone but you and George, and a man called Bill, and a girl in a gold dress.’

comments: This is an unusual entry in the Wentworth canon for a number of reasons. First of all, it has a genuinely mystifying plot, and it is not at all apparent what is going on or how it is going to end up. I love Miss Silver books, but I do not on the whole expect to be puzzled and surprised by them. Then, Miss Silver coughs 43 times, but they are nearly all straight coughs – a reproving one, a brisk one, but none of the usual list of adverbs. Hardly anyone has a ridiculous first name, the closest we get is a man called Brett, and there is one unusual trade (carving wooden toys) but it is intrinsic to the plot and looked at in a business-like way. My Miss Silver checklist – see earlier entries - will have to rest this time, though it is a small price to pay for a genuinely interesting and mysterious story.

Not all is lost though – being pushed into traffic is a Wentworth favourite, and happens three times in this book, with varying success for the criminal attacker. There is amnesia, which surely came up more times in Golden Age crime books than in the whole world in the corresponding years. Mind you, another surprise is that - given the amnesia - there is not then a casual mention of a long-lost cousin that we can rapidly map the plot to. And there was some consideration that one person might be mistaken for another, with clothes referenced - a good Miss Silver theme. 

There are some genuinely odd and creepy characters (very much a missed opportunity not to give them stupid names).

An unusual phrase – ‘one down, t’other come on’ is used twice in the book in very different circumstances (street lights shining in a taxi, eating cheese sandwiches). It occurs in Dickens and Walter Scott, but not much more recently…

There are no romantic misunderstandings and couples get together and get married – normally in Wentworth there is either a dramatically broken engagement, or else a marriage that fails within 24 hours of (and that means either side of) the ceremony because of some situation that could have been easily resolved with a short honest conversation.

This one was recommended to me by another fan, and I totally agree – it is very much not typical, but a very strong entry in the series.

There is charm and jokes – I liked the old man who is shocked by a turn of events:

It didn’t matter, because he was past the three score years and ten already and it wouldn’t be for long. From there to a lonely deathbed, with no one to close his eyes or so much as put up a stone, was an easy short cut.

At just what point in the proceedings it occurred to Katharine that he was enjoying himself, she didn’t quite know, but she found herself holding his hand and saying, ‘Dear Mr. Tattlecombe, please don’t talk like that or I shall cry.’

Abel was distinctly gratified.

All in all, this is an excellent Wentworth book, highly recommended.

Gold brocade evening dress, 1938, from Kristine’s photostream.

The two matrons outside the church looked just right for the quote, ‘stray passersby’: I came across them while searching for the fashion pictures..

Woman in dark blue also from Kristine.

Comments

  1. Great photos, Moira, and I will bear this Wentworth in mind. At present I am obsessively reading George Bellairs, but will stop and read something else soon.

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  2. What a witty post, Moira! You've got the Wentworth/GA tropes down so well! I love it! And it's interesting, isn't it, when a book doesn't meet all those expectations. Still, it's the story's quality that matters, and I'm glad you enjoyed this so well. With a back catalogue like Wentworth's, it's hard for all of them to be excellent...

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  3. Those 24-hour-or-less marriages you mentioned just drive me crazy. They remind me of something Roger Ebert wrote in a review of "Top Hat"--the central misunderstanding "could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue." I hate to say it, but it's usually the woman's fault in Wentworth's stories. (And they're usually quite sensible women otherwise!)

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    1. In all the ones I have read it is the woman's fault for not asking the man to explain himself, though she may have been tricked by a scheming female relative.

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    2. I know, and it makes me want to shake them! Why won't they just TALK to the men before bolting?!

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  4. I am always ready to try another Miss Silver book. However, I just finished The Chinese Shawl, so it may be a while. I am trying to finish all the books in the Miss Silver series set during the war or immediately afterward (which for my purposes would include this one) before I move on to later ones or standalone novels by Wentworth.

    This one does sound unusual. I just realized today that I did not notice the coughs in The Chinese Shawl. In your review of that book you counted 22 coughs. Oh well.

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  5. I will take your word for it that there are no unusual first names - but Mr Tattlecombe? It sounds to me like a name out of The Wind in the Willows or The Borrowers. (Admittedly English is not my first language, though, so maybe I have missed something. Maybe the Tattlecombes are an ancient family, known and respected all over the British Isles?)

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  6. I adore this book. If I get another dachshund I will name it Wurtzel. Thanks for such a great review of one of my faves!

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  7. Thanks to your review, I borrowed the ebook from my local library. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  8. I liked this one. Wentworth actually had me wondering for a while about William's backstory.

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  9. I have to admit, the last two times I've been to Scotland, I've looked for a vintage bog oak pin. Had to settle for one of Perthshire granite.

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    1. Wrong bogs! You need to go to Ireland. Actually you can probably buy bog oak jewellery on the internet. (Imagine Ireland - and Scotland - covered in thick oak forests.)

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  10. I thought of you while visiting the big (too big? maybe, but the rotunda installation is kind of mesmerizing) Christian Dior exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum yesterday. (One gallery features Dior in photographs, and there's a life-size print of "Dovima with Elephants.")That suit at top is surely either Dior or Dior-adjacent.

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  11. Finished it now - definitely worth it! Touch of the Gothic. But the toys sound awful.

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  12. I'm a big fan of this one because it is so interesting. You get a genuine mystery out of the story, and the twists and turns are quite fun to follow. Also, we do get some nice clothing moments.

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