The Catherine Wheel by Patricia Wentworth

published 1951


Somehow I had high hopes of this one, quite an intriguing title after all, but it didn’t really live up to that. The Catherine Wheel is a smugglers’ inn on a clifftop in the vague region of England where most of Miss Silver’s cases happen: place names beginning ‘Led…’ -  in this case, on the coast road to Ledlington.

Descendants of the complex Taverner family are going to all tip up there for a weekend, and a full range of Silver-world characters will be there: attractive young couple, elderly spinster, brassy woman with a past, posh empty-headed lady. One cousin (who won’t actually enter the inn at first) is a refreshingly nice chap, a carpenter, who explains that he did mine-sweeping during the war, as he was a conscientious objector. He is not one of her stock characters at all.

Old Jacob Taverner has a purpose in gathering them in - what can it be? I didn’t have the slightest difficulty working out what he was up to, nor did much else of the plot come as a surprise. It was less crime, and more a kind of West Country Smugglers’ Gothic, and greatly inferior to Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn of 1936, which it rather suspiciously resembles, down to a niece trying to stick with her aunt in the midst of great crimes. DduM didn’t try to insert a genteel houseparty into the inn, to be fair.

In a rudeness tour de force, Miss Silver very deliberately gatecrashes this event, uninvited and unwanted, and evicts one young man from his room to make space for her. (Bear this in mind the next time there are snooty comments on people’s manners in the books)

Someone is murdered, everyone is frightened, and Miss Silver knits a dress for Ethel’s daughter Josephine, so time not entirely wasted. These books are not noted for their dazzling mysteries, but this one did seem particularly easy to work out, and not really full of surprises.

Our heroine Jane lives in a tiny flat in an attic, reminiscent of The Little Princess, and makes very free with inviting one Jeremy up there with her: he would like to marry her, but ‘cousins oughtn’t to marry’ she says, which comes as a big surprise to anyone who regularly reads a certain kind of novel of the 20th century, where people are forever marrying their cousins – as if they were Royals! – without the slightest hesitation. If anything, it guaranteed they were the right kind of people. Where can this be leading? Jeremy now ‘came over to her and stood there in a very up-in-the-air kind of way’ – can anyone enlighten me as to what that means? ‘Jeremy had all the makings of a trampling bully, and she had no intention of being his doormat’. For once, it wasn’t superclear whether they will end up together or not. (That was more of a mystery than anything else in the book.)

There was a nice bit of evidence from one of the workers at the inn, who has been describing incidents to her husband:

 ‘”She was brought up in a God-fearing home, and she did ought to know better,” he says.’ She looked round enjoyably. ‘I don’t know when I’ve seen Mr Bridling so worked up. Quite cheered him up having something he could disapprove of so thorough – kept on talking about it and hindering me. “There’ll be a judgment,” he said. And when the news come this morning you couldn’t hold him. “The triumphing of the wicked is short,” he says.’


And at the other end of the social scale Lady Marian – is she just comic relief? – is also busy talking:  


she was imparting another instalment of that fascinating serial, her life story. Such phrases as, ‘The very first time he saw me . . . swore, actually swore, that he would jump out of the aeroplane,’ and, most surprising of all, “blood on the diamond wreath, and blood on the floor.’’


There was a social detail: all the women had brought their own hot water bottles to the inn, and they were filled by the maid and brought to their rooms at bedtime.

And I liked that one of the declasse characters was wandering round at night (something we always notice here at Clothes in Books) but looking for a drink rather than the more traditional biscuit: ‘I wanted the drink all right.’

The patent Miss Silver checklist:

Miss Silver coughs 49 times, a very high figure. A faint prim cough, in a gentle & deprecating manner, a little cough, ‘in an exceedingly pointed manner’, in a hortatory manner, a preliminary cough, a slight dry cough, reprovingly, modestly. A very wide range.

Ladylike occupations: ‘We are in quite reduced circumstances… so I joined a friend in a fancywork shop at Streatham’.

Our heroine Jane works as a mannequin – showing off diaphanous evening gowns with names like Sigh No More

There was not very much of it above the waist, just a few opalescent folds, but the skirt was new and rather exciting. There were almost more yards of stuff in it than you would have believed possible, all coming in slim and tight to the waist, but they would swirl like spray in the wind when you danced.


-to rich women in a gownshop – a frequent flyer occupation on the blog, often featured in the  Noel Streatfeild/Susan Scarlett romantic novels. The owner of the shop is Clarissa Harlowe bizarrely – this being the full name of the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa.


Unusual names: disappointing. Fogarty is used as a first name as well as a last name. There is one splendid grandfather (among many) whose name is Acts – his brothers included Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Clothes: Miss Silver and Mrs Wentworth are both very snooty about the clothes of the lower classes ‘Frightful clothes – too tight, too bright, too short, too everything. Short royal blue skirt, elaborate revealing knitted jumper which failed to match it by a couple of shades, a cheap paste brooch.’

(even though Miss S wears dreadful clothes herself – ‘nothing could have been less becoming’ than her summer dress).

There is a heliotrope dressing gown. And there is some excellent consideration of what is the right outfit to wear to an inquest:  ‘I couldn’t be expected to know that anyone was going to be murdered’ – so didn’t bring suitable clothes. Is it all right to wear a coloured scarf, and coloured beads? ‘It really is so difficult, because I shouldn’t like anyone to think I was heartless.’

Lady Marion is always dressed well: There she was, magnificent in Parisian black with three rows of pearls dripping down into her lap and her beautiful eyes gazing soulfully at Jacob.


I see I made a note: ‘Gothic nonsense’. Also some inexplicable loose ends – what is going to happen to Jack Challoner? The big house? The revelation about someone’s parentage? All ditched in the end.

She can do much better – her books are all over the blog, click on the Wentworth tab below.

Black inquest outfit, top, from Clover Vintage Tumbler

Evening dress from NYPL 1950s fashion collection.



  1. Well, I certainly enjoyed this review, since I'm equally certain I would not have enjoyed the book. Except maybe to find out what happens to Jane. Tell me she doesn't endanger the species by becoming a doormat and procreating with cousin Jeremy. Tell me she marries the Conchie.

    I suppose it's too much to hope that she marries no one, but finds a better job and flat.

    1. The novel comes down strongly on the side that girls are silly to work when they can get married. It is a bit of a recurring theme. (Doing both being impossible of course.)

    2. Yes, I'm afraid Wentworth/Silver do not seem to see exciting possibilities for women, whether single or married. In this one I was NOT sure whom she would marry, but also I think there are questions left unanswered in the end. Where are they going to live, for example?

    3. Wait. I went to an online version
      ( and took a look at the beginning and the end; it's all there in code.:
      Third paragraph:
      Jane (modelling) came with the graceful submissive air which was part of the job. Inwardly she was thinking that Mrs. Levington wouldn’t get into the dress by at the very least four inches. She wasn’t fat, but she was solid—rather high in the shoulder, rather square in the hip. Handsome, of course, if you liked them that way. Jane didn’t.

      Final scene:
      Up at the Catherine-Wheel Jane and Eily were talking in bed... It was only Tuesday now, and by another Saturday she wouldn’t be Jane Heron any more, because she was going to marry Jeremy. She had lost her job, she had got past feeling proud, they loved each other, he wanted to take care of her. There really didn’t seem to be anything to wait for.
      The last thought got itself into words.
      ‘There doesn’t seem to be anything to wait for.’
      Eily made a rather indeterminate sound—a kind of murmur with a question in it. Then she said, ‘John is in a terrible hurry.’
      Jane said what she had said once before.
      ‘He wants to look after you. You can’t stay here.’
      Eily shuddered. She put out a hand, and Jane held it.
      ‘Don’t you want to marry him?’
      Eily didn’t answer that. She said, ‘He says there’s room for Aunt Annie and she’ll be welcome.’
      ‘He’s good. He’ll look after you, Eily.’
      Eily drew a long sighing breath.
      ‘I shall have to go to chapel twice on a Sunday.’
      The end....
      Well. I suppose Ms Wentworth ended it there because she didn't dare go on, it being 1951 and all. I hope these women work it out before Saturday.

    4. When I first read it I thought they were being light-hearted ie not admitting to being madly in love, pretending to be just practical. But looking at it again you are right, it is quite pointed isn't it? You'd love to know what Wentworth really thought - about a lot of things... There's definitely irony and humour tucked away here and there

  2. This is a brilliant review, Moira! You really put your finger on what makes Wentworth's Miss Silver novels tick, and why this one...didn't so much. Of all the things you mention, I think the hardest for me is that Miss Silver would just show up like that. It just doesn't strike me as like her? At any rate, there are plenty of other great Miss Silver novels as you say....

    1. Thanks Margot. I definitely prefer the books without the thriller-ish aspects, proper mysteries and murders to solve are better. I feel the same about Agatha Christie books, and I think you are the same....?

  3. I wonder if there is any correlation between the number of coughs and the quality of the mystery? I think you're a bit harsh about Miss Silver's gatecrashing. After all, Jane recognizes her and helps insinuate her into the party. Miss Silver is firm but as polite as ever. Although she would certainly frown on gatecrashing in her "private" life, in her "professional capacity" she is willing to stretch the rules a little--as in all that eavesdropping!

    1. There's something I will have to research! I need a spreadsheet.

      No, I know Miss Silver was 'working' but I am still going to take a firm line! Forcing someone else out of their bedroom is Just Rude. Eavesdropping and general snooping are, however, OK in particular circumstances. We need a sleuth's code of conduct.

  4. I quite like the idea of a heliotrope dressing gown, although I could never own one myself (I have a black and white cat and two German shepherds).

    1. There are a few colour names where (no matter how many times I look them up) I can't remember what colour they actually are, because they don't go with the name. Vermilion, coquelicot and heliotrope all in that category.

  5. reminds me of those places where they always have to pretend they are in the early 1900's.

    1. Where the staff have to pretend, do you mean? Awful, and I always wonder how short of money would you have to be to end up working there...


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