Governess-turned-detective Miss Silver investigates a deadly conspiratorial ring
Charles Moray has come home to England to collect his inheritance. After four years wandering the jungles of India and South America, the hardy young man returns to the manor of his birth, where generations of Morays have lived and died. Strangely, he finds the house unlocked, and sees a light on in one of its abandoned rooms. Eavesdropping, he learns of a conspiracy to commit a fearsome crime.
Never one for the heroic, Charles’s first instinct is to let the police settle it. But then he hears her voice. Margaret, his long lost love, is part of the gang. To unravel their diabolical plot, he contacts Miss Maud Silver, a onetime governess who applies reason to solve crimes and face the dangers of London’s underworld.
This is the first in the Miss Silver series of mysteries, but it’s not the first that I’ve read. I accidentally read #14 or #17 or something like that several years back, but it was so good that I decided to go ahead and (eventually) read the entire series.
It’s a long-running series, starting in the late 1920s and ending in the early 1960s some 30+ books later. Miss Silver is a former school teacher and governess who becomes a private investigator in London, and she’s a Miss Marple type. Unassuming, respectable, highly intelligent, etc.
This first book very much reads like the start to a series, which can often be a bad thing. Usually the detective characters are a bit rough, still feeling out their personalities and quirks that bloom into someone interesting three or four books down the line. Same thing with Miss Silver, who isn’t so much a protagonist as a slightly enigmatic secondary character who knows everything and uses fiber arts as a weapon.
The actual protagonists are two ex-lovers and a ditzy schoolgirl, with a criminal mastermind call Grey Mask threatening murder, kidnapping, and violence at every turn.
The basic story is this: Charles, brooding hero, runs into a party of conspirators in his own supposedly empty house. The plot? Murder, plus more murder and/or kidnapping, to get ahold of inheritance money from the ditzy schoolgirl/heiress. The problem? One of the conspirators is Charles’ ex-fiancee, Margaret, who he hadn’t talked to in four years and doesn’t think to be the murdering type.
Charles hires Miss Silver, professional detective, to investigate wtf is going with Margaret and the murderers.
The narrative POV flips around between Margaret, Charles, and Margot (the schoolgirl), and never do we see Miss Silver’s POV. Normally that kind of mystery annoys me (if it’s a series named after a detective, the detective should get a shot at the POV, I think) but it worked here partly because Miss Silver doesn’t even seem to do anything except tail people. Good detective work, I think, but probably would make for a boring POV when the other ones are full of heart-wrenching emotional stuff (Charles and Margaret) and fluffy teenage nonsense (Margot).
I did so love the way that Charles and Margaret’s relationship was written. Sometimes with these older books the romance gets overly tragic and maudlin. Bleh. But in Grey Mask C & M’s ex-romance had real emotion to it, and I thought it was very well written. I’m a sucker for characters and their relationships, and this story heavily depends on the interpersonal relationships between C & M, Margot, Margaret & Margaret’s step-father, C & Miss Silver, Margot and HER father, Margot and her mother, and Margaret and HER mother.
Speaking of Margot, the schoolgirl/heiress: she felt more like she belonged in a Georgette Heyer romance than a somewhat hard-edged murder mystery– doubly so after the ending where she actually DOES get a romance. She didn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the book, but I suppose she was there to provide some levity to C & M’s melancholic relationship. And I do wonder if P. Wentworth ever wrote an actual romance, because I totally want to read it if she did.
Anyway, I liked the actual mystery part of the story, overall, but I think the ending was not as well-thought out as it might’ve been. There’s a lot going on over the course of the book: the conspirators, the multiple murders, the kidnapping attempts, successful kidnapping, people pretending to be dead when they aren’t, etc., and the mystery is more about unmasking Grey Mask himself.
Which does happen! And there’s a twist, a very good one. However, the denouement depends on someone being dead– and STAYING DEAD. Unfortunately, two other characters had only been pretending to be dead themselves, and so the whole ending feels a bit lackluster. What’s to stop this third person being alive after all? What about the REST of the conspirator group? All that build-up and then the ending just fell flat.
So a somewhat uneven first book, but since I know that it gets better (since I have read #16 or #18 or whatever), I’ll continue reading the series.
Read: May 2019