The Key by Patricia Wentworth

The Key  by Patricia Wentworth

published 1946


Mrs Mottram [was] attired in crimson corduroy slacks and a bright blue jumper, her fair hair encircled by a green and orange bandeau. She looked extremely pretty.

I did a post a while back on Patricia Wentworth’s Out of the Past, and mentioned the daringly-dressed young woman who insisted Miss Silver be called into the case: blogfriend Lucy Fisher came up with this in the comments: ‘There is a similar ditsy young woman fond of bright colours who insists on calling in Miss Silver in The Key.’ So that decided what my next venture into Miss Silver World would be. And maybe that picture would work for this one too:

Mrs Mottram ‘was wearing that rather bright blue dress which she had bought when she went out of mourning. And turquoise earrings – really most unsuitable, though no doubt very becoming.’ This is for the inquest. (the picture, from Clover Vintage, is from much later, but seemed right) But then weirdly, the heroine - and there is never any doubt in a Wentworth book as to who this is - is wearing a short white tennis dress for the inquest, which sounds quite extraordinarily unsuitable, but is praised by others. ‘How nice and cool she looked in a white tennis frock and a sort of garden hat with a black ribbon round it…’ For more on tennis dresses – and my theory that there were more dresses than players see the post here, and the comments beneath. My belief is that throughout history, young women have found a ‘reason’ to wear something that will show themselves (and their legs) off.


There is a very odd moment when this heroine is traduced, but we aren’t left in any doubt that there is no truth in anything bad said about her. (This is a really out-of-place brief plotline in the book)

But the contrast with Mrs Mottram with her vulgarly-coloured clothes is not as stern as it often is in these books: Mrs M is a nice woman, she is pleasant, and she was the first person to offer to take in an evacuee child. And this is not really a judgement: ‘Ida Mottram had the happy faculty of always believing what she was told. It made her very popular with men.’

There is rather a good hat for an older lady:


Her curls ably supporting the not inconsiderable weight of her best hat, which was trimmed with four yards of black velvet ribbon of pre-war quality, three massive ostrich plumes, and a bunch of violets.

‘Handsome, but heavy,’ she said with a sigh of relief. ‘Mamma’s cousin, Oswald Everett, brought her the feathers from South Africa. They have worn extremely well, though not in fashion now. But Mary Anne Doncaster would take offence if I went to see her in anything but my best hat.’

Some more nice lines – ‘very few people had ever seen [the gravedigger] smile. Some said it was just his gravedigger’s pride – ‘And say what you like, none of us wouldn’t fancy having jokes cracked over our coffins.’ Others said that if they had to live with Susannah Pincott and eat her cooking, maybe they wouldn’t smile either.

And there is gossip about the incompetence of Dr Edwards – ‘His own wife being a complete invalid is hardly a recommendation’.

Time for

The patent Miss Silver Checklist:

How many people were out and about that night? Bearing in mind that this is a quiet churchyard and church in a small village, it’s 10 o’clock in the evening in wartime – I’ve counted up and checked my number, and, including the murderer and the victim, there are NINE people in the graveyard/church over the course of around 20 minutes. I mean, how did they not fall over one another?

But I always grab the chance to use again my favourite Thurber quotation, and one of my favourite lines of all time, from his fake Southern Gothic epic:

Old Nate Birge… was chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.


There is some lese majeste here: the Coroner has the nerve to cough at the inquest… Perhaps  in retaliation, Miss Silver coughs 40 times – a personal best (at least by my count). They are faint, hortatory, slight, dry and deprecating.

Unusual names Medora (‘it sounds like Atora suet’). Garth Albany – the most Wentworth-hero name ever? (And we also find out that his mother was not only fast, she was rapid, a new one on me. Although the fastness concerns being kissed by the very man she went on to marry)

Sir George Rendal – not in itself unusual, but it is typical Wentworth slapdash that in many of her other books the key senior policeman is called Randall.

Interestingly, the name Janice is described by Miss Silver as very unusual, she has never come across it before, though I think most people in the UK would think it very unexceptional. (it does seem to have become more popular around that time, peaking as a baby name in the 1950s)

Unusual words  ‘He called me….miserable atomy’ – atomy is an archaic word for a skeleton or emaciated body.

Fooffly. A way of speaking by ditzy Aunt Sophy, repeated throughout the book in different versions.

‘And there it was, spang on top of the’ photograph – spang means directly or completely, apparently, a slang term.

Scatteration, which means what it sounds like, and to my great surprise was not invented by Wentworth. It sounds rather twee, and the use here is ‘a scatteration of socks’, but it also has academic meanings.

Ladylike & other strange occupations

Still we have paid companions, being passed around among older ladies. I wonder when they finally disappeared from UK life?

There is a most unladylike occupation: inventor of explosives. ‘You can take my harschite and put to its work. My part is done’ -harschite is a new material, the McGuffin of the plot, an amazing new explosive that can change the future, but must stay in the right hands: ‘That is why I give my harschite to the government. When the prisons are all broken and men can live again, I shall be glad to feel that I have helped.’

More clothes

‘Over her head she had tied a black lace scarf, the ends brought round to cover her to the chin’. This matches her black lace dinner dress, and is for sneaking out into the cool evening. Although the word isn’t used here, this is what a fascinator was in those days, the headgear it describes has changed since those days.


Altogether a very competent, average book in the series.


  1. Forty coughs? That *is* a record, Moira! I think your Miss Silver checklist is one of the best parts of your reviews of this series; I love it. It's interesting, too, how that sort of female character shows up in slightly different ways in her different books. I'll have to think about that next time I read one.

    1. Thanks Margot. I hope it is clear that as I poke my gentle fun at Miss Silver world, I really do enjoy them! Wentworth knew how to write an engaging book.

  2. I don't remember that brightly coloured young lady! A quick Google suggests that tennis dresses could be knee-length. I love post-war fashion before the New Look swept all before it.

    1. They do slightly meld into one, but I was grateful for the tipoff. Love the tennis dress you put on Twitter - now, where am I going to use that?

  3. "It made her very popular with men." I love the quiet sarcasm of that. It seems pure chance that Wentworth did not happen to invent the term "mansplaining". (And apart from atomy, fooffly and spang, I must admit that traduce was a new word to me. A very educating experience, this blog.)

    1. I think Wentworth enjoyed expanding everyone's vocabulary! I always think I learned most of what I know just from reading a lot of books - I'm the classic person who doesn't necessarily know how to pronounce words because they all came from the written page.
      I find reading my commenters to be a very educating experience!

  4. I love Miss Silver, but I've never quite understood how she could get such expression into a cough!

    1. Yes exactly. I do suspect Wentworth was having fun in the later books...

  5. I wondered about paid companions a couple of weeks back when I read Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from side to side, where Miss Marple has been ill and has a live-in companion to look after her (devoted maidservants have gone out of fashion). The book was written in 1962, and I find it hard to believe people still had paid companions in the 1960s.

    1. It's one of those sociological questions - very difficult to track down exactly when it stopped being a thing. Also Christie has mention of a valet-masseur, not a thing now I don''t think. And from American books - what became of the house detective in hotels?

  6. I agree that there are occasions with Patricia Wentworth when one wonders how much she was teasing her readers. I recently reread The Catherine Wheel and there seem to be at least four marriages which one would not wish on at least one of the spouses (and sometimes both) and the two engagements by the end of the book are not free from doubt. Perhaps the strong male persona went over better with readers back then, while others enjoyed seeing marriages portrayed which were worse than their own.
    Mild spoiler (although it's not though as there was any doubt as to who would end up with who) the final line has an otherwise happily engaged girl drawing "a long sighing breath. "I shall have to go to chapel twice on a Sunday."

  7. Sorry, should have checked back to your 2022 review. Agree with all comments about the awfulness of Jeremy. I'm glad that someone else shared my appreciation of the last line. I rather assumed that the big reveal of past goings-on would be kept private because no one wanted to be responsible for the house and reopen the can of worms.

    1. Thanks for commenting and for being as caught up in the details as I was! So glad you agree with me. Wentworth always has something to make you think and discuss

  8. Our tennis club in Boston hosted big tournaments when I was growing up and everyone helped out - my younger siblings were ball boys and ball girls and I was an usher, seating the paying customers and shushing them. It always amazed me how many spectators wore tennis whites as if they might be asked to join the match unexpectedly! Now that tennis clothes are not excusively white except at Wimbledon, this might not be as noticeable. I don't recall this phenomenon at other sporting events, although children going to baseball games sometimes bring a baseball glove so they can catch a ball if one comes near!

    1. Very interesting! I love the idea of being ready just in case. At UK sports games, football and rugby, people nowadays wear club shirts (and it's very big financial business) whereas years ago they would'v been in their everyday clothes with perhaps a scarf in club colours.
      My 6yo nephew was a big football (soccer) fan, so one year at Christmas I ordered him a present to be sent to him from his club's website: a pair of pyjamas in the club style. Later that day I had a sudden thought - the sizes on offer had been SML etc, and I had a panic that these were not children's sizes. Surely grown adults did not order club pyjamas? But when I went back to the website, they WERE big people's pyjamas - I had to contact the club urgently and get them to redo the order.


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