The young woman standing on the cold stone step had no idea who she was, or where she was. The other young woman, the one at the bottom of the stairs, was dead - murdered. And the young woman on the stairs was trapped in a nightmare world of amnesia. She needed help, and she needed it badly. Fortunately for her...there was Miss Silver.
That 's the situation we face at the very start of Patricia Wentworth's last novel, The Girl in the Cellar, which is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you can hear in its entirety by clicking here.
The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year Patricia Wentworth died, and it is the last of some 32 books to feature Miss Maud Silver, the private enquiry agent whose little-old-lady appearance can be dangerously deceptive to evildoers. Miss Silver began life as a governess, bringing up other people's children. When she retired and became a private investigator, she brought her no-nonsense attitude with her.
I have read a fair number of the Miss Sliver mysteries, and I think The Girl in the Cellar is one of the better ones. Its dramatic opening is remarkably powerful: we are introduced to this young woman standing on the basement steps in a house that may or may not be deserted. She is suffering from amnesia - she cannot even remember her own name, or where she is, or what she is doing there. She only knows that there is the dead body of another woman at the bottom of the steps.
She manages to get out of the house, and she gets onto the first bus passing by. And that's where her luck begins to change, because she runs into Miss Silver, who sees that the young woman obviously is suffering from shock and needs help.
It will take quite a while before the young woman is able to remember who she is and start to make sense out of the things going on around her. And, as that knowledge comes back to her, she will also realize that knowledge can be a very dangerous thing...
A lot of the Miss Silver books strike me as being fairly formulaic - you have the same character-types in book after book. There is usually a Damsel in Distress, there's a Misunderstood Young Man, there are Friends/Relatives Who Should Know Better, and so forth. In this case, however, the peril facing the heroine is pretty unique, and Wentworth really does a fine job in showing us the helpless terror that burdens the amnesia victim. It's not so much a whodunit - it's pretty clear most of the way through the book who the villain is - but the true relationships among the characters, and the identity of the girl in the cellar - of both girls in the cellar - are well concealed and allowed to play out suspensefully. And Miss Silver is a delight, as always.
The Girl in the Cellar is another entry in the Vintage Mystery Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog. As it was published after 1960, I am intering in in the Silver category, "a book by an author you've read before."