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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Patricia Wentworth

Despite the predictability and dated stereotypes, or perhaps because of them, I've enjoyed reading Patricia Wentworth's mysteries, but, then again, I love a lot of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  I just finished re-reading The Chinese Shawl (published in 1943).

For any reader of this blog who isn't familiar with Patricia Wentworth (however unlikely it is that anyone but me is reading this), she was a British novelist writing primarily detective fiction during what is now considered the British Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a discussion in its own right).  Her first mystery novel, Grey Mask, was published in 1928, and her final novel, The Girl in the Cellar, was published in 1961.  She published a slew of books, mostly featuring her constantly knitting "spinster" "private inquiry agent", Maud Silver, a.k.a. Miss Silver.

Her books would now be classified as "cozy mysteries", typically set in English country manors.  The murdered individual tends to be an unpleasant sort, and the murderer also tends to be really unlikeable (and typically easy to predict).  Wentworth usually focuses on a young (early 20s), pretty heroine and a young (mid 20s) handsome, often brooding hero, both of whom at some point are suspected of the dastardly crime, but then are happily exonerated by the wise and observant Miss Silver.  The police and Scotland Yard, particularly the good-looking, suave Inspector Frank Abbott (later promoted), are astounded and amazed.

Wentworth typically has the murder occur a third or halfway into the novel rather than at the beginning, then sends Miss Silver in to rehash events, collect clues, and interview evasive suspects.  There's a dramatic showdown of some sort near the end.  Wentworth ends the book with the young couple, who ride off into the sunset of a marriage plot ending.

At her best, Wentworth successfully sets up a tense, uncomfortable scenario with dastardly characters attempting to thwart the heroine and hero as well as the path of justice. The bit of romance Wentworth throws in is always very charming.  It's nice to sit back as a reader and enjoy the ride.

I always find it interesting and fun what characteristics are considered befitting to hero, heroine, and villains in works written in a different time.  The characteristics aren't exactly the same as in contemporary times, especially the female characters.

Ironically, it's Miss Silver, who is more in line with a "contemporary" heroine, ironic because she's also "old-fashioned", with "Victorian" sensibilities.  She's also level-headed, brave, independent (both financially and emotionally), and, I would say, mildly contemptuous and amused by blustering, superior-acting men.

By contrast, Wentworth's damsel in distress isn't assertive, career-minded, or worldly in any sense of the world, as contemporary heroines might be.  She ultimately defers to the superiority of the hero.  The heroine doesn't take the gun or poker stick or other implement of destruction into her own hand and take down the baddie by herself (Miss Silver doesn't, either); she lets the capable hero do the grunt work.  The heroine is prone to be frightened, at times incapacitated by the horrors of the murder or when she is almost murdered; she might show pluck, but it's the hero (and Miss Silver) who keeps the cool head and saves the day.

I must admit that the portrayal of the heroine and other female characters as emotionally less stable and, frankly, sometimes more stupid than the men (with the notable exception of Miss Silver) can be a bit trying, but, as I mentioned in the opening of this ramble, the datedness is part of the overall charm. 

I find reading books written in a different time, for a different time, is like dabbling in nostalgia, leaving me a bit wistful but warm and fuzzy. 

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