“As a gentlewoman, the thought of eavesdropping was extremely repugnant to Miss Silver. As a detective engaged upon a case of attempted murder, she treated her scruples with exemplary firmness.”
We are talking, of course, about Miss Maud Silver, the creation of Patricia Wentworth. Miss Silver is an ex-governess, now working on her own as a private investigator - and quite successful at it, thank you very much. Miss Silver had the talent of appearing to fade into the background, a harmless elderly woman sitting by the fire (in a room full of suspects who would never dream of talking to the police), knitting some garment for an infant relative. The result was that she was generally ignored - and able to listen to quite revealing conversations that could help solve, or even prevent, serious crimes - including murder. There's a fine example of her abilities on display in Lonesome Road, by Patricia Wentworth. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Lonesome Road, published in 1939, was the third of Wentworth’s 32 books about Miss Silver, who finds herself involved in a very complex case. A not-so-young woman named Rachel Treherne comes to Miss Silver’s office with a problem: she has been receiving death threats – first in the form of letters, then followed by what appear to be genuine attempts on her life. Miss Treherne is the most important person in her family, for her father left her an enormous fortune when he died. But he also left Miss Treherne with strict instructions to use that money to support the other members of her family – her older sister and that sister’s husband, their two grown children, and several cousins, all of whom live with (or very near to) Rachel Treherne. Although she controls the purse strings, and tries to do so fairly, her relatives are most unhappy and chafe under her supervision. Has one of them reached the point where he or she is ready to take decisive action to remove Rachel by force? That’s the question Miss Silver is asked to solve – and, of course, to help Rachel avoid being murdered. So Miss Silver comes to Rachel’s house as an invited guest, appearing to be just a fairly harmless old woman, the object of rather vague contempt on the part of most of the people in the household – and it is always a serious error to underestimate Miss Silver.
Maud Silver is often compared to Miss Jane Marple, that very wise-in-the-ways-of-the-world sleuth created by Agatha Christie. I'm not sure how valid that comparison really is. Miss Marple, of course, is an amateur, relying on her knowledge of human behavior to solve difficult crimes. Miss Silver, on the other hand, is very definitely a professional, and she usually gets a lot of respect from professional law enforcement people. Her talents are definitely on display in Lonesome Road, which is available mostly in e-book formats.
Lonesome Road is a very gentle mystery. There are powerful emotions swirling around the house and its residents, there’s a love interest for Rachel in the form of an American businessman, there are faithful servants and not-so-faithful ones. I think, in fairness, I’d have to describe the book as being a cozy in form – there’s even a pet dog, who plays a significant role in the story. But it’s a thoroughly entertaining book.