Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth

published 1953

....[X’s] hand went up ‘to the green and emerald scarf which was bound about her head. It came away with the small heavy spanner which had been hidden under the bow., He did not see it come down hard and strong. He felt the blow, but not the deep cool plunge into green water.

Hidden weapons carried by skimpily dressed women! A great Clothes in Books favourite – a key discussion in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage   ('She hadn't so much as a handkerchief in the top of her stocking’), and then also Christianna Brand’s Suddenly at his Residence – no room for a syringe in a tiny bathing suit.

Early in this book – long before the scene above -  there’s a character who is endlessly dropping stitches in her knitting. It’s all going disastrously wrong, so we know Miss Silver is going to have to be called in. Remember Wentworth’s Mr Zero? The  girl at the centre 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.’ That’s not a Miss Silver book, but a comparable cry for help, I think.

Alan Field here is one of Wentworth's most vicious young men – having left a bride at the altar some years ago, he returns and immediately starts blackmailing everyone in sight. So it’s pretty clear who is going to die, and that we are not going to regret them. All the blackmail-ees, if we can call them that, are surprisingly real characters, who may have behaved foolishly, but come over in the book as having real feelings.

‘That very good-looking Mr Field appeared to have had a disturbing effect’ on two different neighbouring households….

There is some very crass dropping in of important info – a lost sister, a character who brings out her paper-knife every day.

And of course a couple whose life is about to be ruined by a complete failure to discuss something. The couples in Miss-Silver-World may be rather wonderful, and good, but they never have the slightest trust in each other, always believe the worst of one another. It’s not very promising, honestly.

Fortunately Miss Silver is close at hand already – she is on holiday in the area, with the much-mentioned niece Ethel Burkett. So, ready at a moment’s notice to busybody around and see what’s going on and give out advice.

There is also a strand of lost treasure and a mysterious foreigner – one does always wish Patricia Wentworth had resisted those temptations.

Miss Silver and Esther (the knitting amateur) have a splendidly described ‘talk about make-up, a subject upon which one would not have supposed them to be particularly informed, but which appeared to interest them in no small degree.’

Make-up is always important of course:

Carmona said, ‘Pippa I wouldn’t.’

‘Wouldn’t what, darling?’

Carmona indicated the lipstick.

‘I really wouldn’t – it’s too bright. And that headscarf – I don’t think it’s a good idea.’

But the young woman concerned (she changes the scarf but refuses to give up the lipstick) isn't entirely foolish - it is she  who realises that they must bring in Miss Silver. Immediately.

And there are some excellent clothes:  

... She wore a sleeveless linen frock and a big shady hat. Her legs were bare and she had green sandals on her feet.

...Pippa in scarlet slacks and a sleeveless jersey, sprang out and embraced her. When last seen her hair had been a fair brown. It was now platinum. She wore dark glasses with scarlet rims which shge took off and snapped away in a startling red and white bag.

...She came down the terrace steps. The dusk drained the colour from her pale green dress, but a tracery of sequins glittered. [She wore] a double row of pearls.

There is also a bohemian but posh artist – Penderel Field – who has a touch of the Amyas Crale, from Christie’s Five Little Pigs, and also would fit in with the discussion of stereotyped artists in the post on AJ Cronin’s The Crusader’s Tomb. Blogfriend Marty pointed this out in the comments back then: "In Out of the Past the letters of a dead artist play an important role in the plot. The artist doesn't sound like as bad as some other depictions, but he apparently did misbehave a bit." A very helpful description.

The patent Miss Silver Checklist:

I am adding a new question for this checklist:

How many people were out and about that night? 

SEVEN people visited the key location, the beach hut, more than were in the house.


Miss silver coughs 14 times:  indicating dissent, with a note of reproof (twice), and there is a ‘slight preliminary’ cough as well as  a slight introductory one

Unusual names

Carmona, Penderel, Octavius, Darsie, Minx (only mentioned in passing, but described as ‘only too appropriately nicknamed’)

Ladylike occupations

Keeping a boarding house only it’s called Paying Guests.

There’s a tyrannical maid who won’t let her employer have house guests, not clear what category that is in.

There is a young woman who ‘worked in a beauty parlour and was quite a good advertisement for its wares’

 This was a most entertaining read, and might be up for consideration as the ur-text for Wentworth, holding in its pages all her best and worst features. 

Woman in slacks  The Vintage (tumblr.com)


  1. Oh, that hip yoke! Does it need to be so cubist? Imagine making it! Or is it just a New Look method of getting more gathers in the front to give the illusion of more fabric than you can afford?

    1. Only you would know the term hip yoke, Lucy, but I do see what you mean. Is it slightly more flattering to the waist than gathers all the way up...?

  2. Ah, the Miss Silver checklist! I love it, Moira! And you're right about the young couple who don't entirely trust each other. It's interesting, too, how so often, we almost prefer it when the victim is unpleasant. It's so much easier to let that person go, so to speak.

    1. Totally agree Margot - I definitely think it's a good choice when the victim can be easily spared rather than much missed. No tears shed over this one.

  3. There is a similar ditsy young woman fond of bright colours who insists on calling in Miss Silver in The Key. Georgette Heyerdahl is also tone to married couples who distrust each other for no good reason like the Norths in A Blunt Instrument

    1. Darned autocorrect - Georgette Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific on a raft made of Regency romances...

    2. Love it... Although we can hardly accuse her romances of being soppy, can we?

    3. Lucy: love Georgette Heyerdahl. I suppose untrusting couples are necessary for plot purposes, but it is interesting that no-one ever comments on what a bad sign it is. I suppose they are a corrective for all those other couples who cover for each other, confess to try to shield the other and so on, just to complicate things.

  4. Well, I'm impressed. Only 14 coughs. Someone must have given her a supply of Fisherman's Friend.

    I think tyrannical maid/staff is a category of its own. I'm sure I've met them in lots of pre-war and mid-century BritLit. The gardener who absolutely rules the grounds. The nanny who is the autocrat of the nursery. And Jeeves, of course, who is very strong-minded about what the young master should or shouldn't wear.

    1. I think it's good weather - they're all on the beach the whole time - perhaps the sunshine helped out with the coughs!
      Yes, you are right, surely there's a good investigation to be made into the idea of tyrannical staff...

  5. I can forgive quite a lot for those clothes descriptions: 'green AND emerald.' As for couples suspecting each other, yes, happens all the time in GA fiction. I have just read Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston, which more than one set of lovers confessing to murder in order to shield the loved one. Chrissie

    1. Oh, just what I'm saying above! Do you recomment that book, I have not heard of it?

  6. Sorry to be a pest, but any spanner small enough to be concealed beneath a headscarf would be both too short and to lightweight to be of much use as a blunt instrument unless the person wielding the spanner had incredible upper body strength. A small spanner could in a pinch make a good stand-in for brass knuckles, but to get any kind of leverage you would have to have enough room for your hand to grip it, as well as a long enough bar so that the target gets the full brunt of the downward swing.

    Not that I'm speaking from experience, mind you.

    1. Whatever the opposite of pest is! I totally rely on you to give us the lowdown on weaponry, hiding, fighting, how clothes affect all those things - you are the official consultant and expert.

    2. A spanner of appropriate length could much more easily have been concealed in one of those enormous postman-sized handbags that women carried during the war years, and I'm surprised that Wentworth made such a rookie mistake.

    3. She was down at the beach, is that an excuse? Climbing on rocks maybe. But then, a beach bag would be ideal for hiding a weapon...


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