Author: Patricia Wentworth
Publication: Warner, paperback, originally published in 1955
Setting: 20th century EnglandDescription: Paulina Paine goes to an art gallery to see a painting done of her by David Moray, who rents her attic as his studio. The painting is called The Listener, reflecting the thoughtful look when she compensates for her loss of hearing by using other senses. Miss Paine can lip-read and while at the gallery she “overhears” two men discussing a robbery and a murder. Worried but sure no one will believe her, Miss Paine visits Miss Silver, who advises her to consult Scotland Yard. Miss Paine decides she is overreacting but dies in a traffic accident on her way home. The same day, a valuable necklace belonging to Lucius Bellingdon is stolen and his secretary killed. A bit too coincidentally, it is Bellingdon who purchased the painting of Miss Paine. Miss Silver, David Moray, and Miss Paine’s other tenant, Sally Foster are all invited to stay at Bellingdon’s country estate – an uncomfortable house party where the killer is likely to strike again.
My Impression: Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 novels featuring her elderly sleuth, Miss Silver, and this is the 28th – the books seems so firmly rooted in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that it is surprising to see she went on writing until 1961. This book reminds me of a Nancy Drew with a gimmick like lip-reading playing a key part in the mystery. The fact that Miss Paine, who lost her hearing after being buried alive in the Blitz for 24 hours, can accurately read lips from across the room alerts the reader to the fact that murder is going to happen and that at least two men are involved. Actually, Miss Silver is worried by Miss Paine’s story and calls Chief Inspector Lamb at Scotland Yard. He is a recurring, curmudgeonly character who respects Miss Silver but is often irked that her perspicacity often enables her to solves crimes that are under his investigation. He is very skeptical of Miss Paine’s story but says he will check out the gallery. By the time they have this conversation, however, Miss Paine has been killed and the theft of the necklace and murder of the secretary sent as courier takes place the next day.
Another recurring character is Detective Inspector Frank Abbott. He is tall, slim, and elegant, with fair hair and blue eyes. He attended boarding school and police college (unusual in this era, presumably, except in fiction) and both his class and sometimes flippant behavior annoy his boss, Chief Inspector Lamb. He is a fan of Miss Silver.
Miss Paine was a good character despite getting murdered. There are few disabled characters in fiction portrayed as self-sufficient but she rebounded after losing her hearing. She learned lip-reading and cooking, got a job as a housekeeper in the country. After inheriting her uncle's house in London, she kept two rooms for herself and has rented out the rest.
|I prefer this cover but Miss Paine is too young|
The second half of the story takes place at Lucius Bellingdon’s home in the country where the police and Miss Silver believe a member of his household must have planned the theft of the necklace. An odd assortment of characters have assembled, including Bellingdon’s widowed daughter, Moira, a number of young men with whom she is friendly, and family hangers-on. Although Sally went to school with Moira, they have little in common and Sally is made to feel unwelcome. She is not as appealing a character as the usual Wentworth ingenue and needs more backbone:
The rest of the party did not go to church. Sally had meant to, but when it came to the point it was beyond her. There was something about the way Moira looked at her and said, “I suppose you’ll go to church,” that made her say “Oh, no” - just like that. She hadn’t meant to say it, but once it was said she wasn’t going to go back on it.Sally is in love with the painter, David Moray, and is worried he will succumb to Moira’s charms so stays on (I understand her reasoning but if I were at a house party where people got murdered, I would not linger). My favorite moment of the book – which is fine but not one of Wentworth’s strongest – is when David seems besotted with Moira but then surprises everyone by saying he wants to paint her as Medusa!
Source: Personal copy. This was my third book of the year for Carol’s Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge.
This is one of the last unread Patricia Wentworth books I have on the TBR shelves. I was a bit put off by the way the lip-reading was presented, and also that the character who goes to Miss Silver for help gets murdered - that doesn't usually happen. But it does show the danger of ignoring Miss Silver's advice.
I was watching an episode of the Marple adaptations yesterday and thinking again that Miss Silver would translate well to TV.
I wondered if it was me that the lip reading seemed kind of gimmicky or objectifying. My friend at work who has hearing loss and augments his hearing aid with lip reading really suffered during the pandemic when people were wearing masks.
These books would make good TV adaptations, although it might be too easy to get Miss Marple and Miss Silver confused. In some books, Miss Silver has done so well financially she has a maid, and I wish she would buy a new hat and coat!
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