“Visits from the police are not apt to leave a happy atmosphere behind them.”
After being bombed in the Blitz, Paulina Paine was lucky to escape with her life. Though the bombing left her unable to hear, she has become a skilled lip-reader and carved out a pleasant life for herself—until one afternoon, she witnesses an astonishing conversation between two strangers speaking of robbery and murder. What worries her is that if she could see these men, they could see her.
Scotland Yard does not take Paulina’s report seriously, but Maud Silver does. The former governess turned private investigator follows the scantiest of clues to a country house that is seething with crime and treachery.
The Listening Eye is a late entry in the Miss Silver series, published when Patricia Wentworth was in her late seventies, and there is a slightly melancholy air of the lion in winter here. There’s a little more rambling and repetition than usual. The criminal plot is almost ridiculously simple. The book reaches its natural ending, then goes on for three more chapters. Yet I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Wentworth has a knack for creating characters that, while not exactly deep, accomplish exactly what they are meant to. There are genuinely emotional moments mixed in with scenes of humor, suspense and even shock. Much like Miss Silver herself, Wentworth is a seasoned professional, and even if her touch is not as precise as it might be, the reader can still put themselves in her hands without fear of being led astray.
Soon after hearing Paulina Paine’s story, Miss Silver learns that a legendary necklace, rumored to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, has been stolen from business tycoon Lucius Bellingdon. Undercover, she goes to work as a secretary at his country home, which is also shared by Bellingdon’s headstrong daughter Moira and a long-term visitor, his “good friend” Annabel Scott. Elaine Bray, the cousin of his late wife, serves as housekeeper and general gossip. She is an especially valuable source for Miss Silver, “having passed most of her life in other people’s houses without any very settled position or any qualifications for attracting interest or friendship.”
Elaine is frustrated by the unexpected arrival of weekend guests, including Paulina’s tenants, Sally and David, and nephew Wilfrid. The two men are both painters, and both are vying for Sally’s affections. (This mild love triangle takes up an extremely irritating chapter early in the book, but isn’t too intrusive after that.) Much to Sally’s dismay, she seems in danger of losing both men to Moira. Rounding out the party are antiques dealer Clay Masterson, Elaine’s leech-like brother Arnold, and Bellingdon’s secretary Garrard, who is recovering from a very conveniently timed illness. The latter three were also in residence at the time of the theft.
The household revolves around the beautiful Moira, who “didn’t look as if she had a heart to break.” The painter David Moray knows Moira for what she is.
You see, Medusa, she’s human. At least she was, but she’s lost the human touch and whatever she looks at loses it too. She drains it out till there’s no warmth or feeling left. Just poison and bright ice—that’s what I’ve got to try and paint, not snakes in the hair.
(Unsurprisingly, modern art doesn’t come off too well here. Even before stumbling upon the criminal conspiracy, Paulina is distressed by the avant-garde paintings of David and Wilfrid. “A good many of the pictures might have looked better if it had not been possible to see them quite so clearly […] She simply coudn’t imagine what she could possibly say about it to Hilda. The word daring presented itself.” Later, Annabel is just as confused by a description of Wilfrid’s work. “Darling, I should hate to have a pink aspidistra in my Unconscious!” Moira speaks up in defense of art: “It was the pot that was pink.”)
The more Miss Silver’s investigation seems to focus on the Bellingdon household, the more her client Lucius protests. She pays him no mind. “It was by no means Miss Silver’s first experience of being invited to an investigation which subsequently proved very little to the taste of the person who had invited her.”
By this point in her career, Miss Silver is starting to become a victim of her own success. Her attempt to go undercover is foiled when one suspect recognizes her immediately due to a mutual friend who was featured in The Brading Collection. Such minor spoilers for earlier cases are a common hazard for the series, as Miss Silver presides over a vast network of grateful former suspects. Since many of Wentworth’s books exist in an interchangeable haze, however, it doesn’t do much harm to learn who didn’t do it in a previous novel.
Scotland Yard Inspector Frank Abbott views Miss Silver as “a fixed point in a changing world,” a comforting Edwardian nanny let loose in the atomic age. She is often perceived as a problem-solver, or a busybody. In fact, Miss Silver’s great gift is the ability to not interfere. Letting people reveal what they want to share is often more revealing than pointed questioning. Those who come to Miss Silver for comfort or direction tend to find neither, but supplicants who are willing to think hard about their own situations usually come away a little wiser, while those who are not walk away empty-handed. Miss Silver has been alive for many years and she is not in the business of saving people. She has learned that people can only save themselves.
This title is in the public domain in Canada. A free ebook is available via Faded Page.