“If she was telling lies—and I’m sure she was—it was because she wanted to screen somebody else. And we’ve got to find out who it is—we’ve simply got to.”
Hilary knows she’s being ridiculous, but she just can’t help it. The sight of her ex-fiance Henry seems to drive all common sense out of her head. Seeing Henry so unexpectedly at the station, all she can do is jump into the nearest train before he spots her. Of course it is entirely the wrong train, and now she’ll never make it to tea at her aunt’s.
This simple mistake is about to reopen an old wound for Hilary’s family. Over a year ago, her cousin’s husband, Geoffrey Grey, was convicted of murder. Now he’s serving a life sentence. Hilary has always known Geoffrey was innocent, but there is nothing she can do about it. The case seems closed for good, until a chance encounter changes everything. Will Hilary be able to save Geoffrey’s life, or will she lose her own instead?
The Case Is Closed is a sprightly adventure with a rambunctious heroine and plenty of 1930s atmosphere. Though it is the second entry in the Miss Silver series, it comes after a long gap following the character’s introduction in 1928’s Grey Mask. This book actually feels more like a standalone than part of a series. Hilary Carew is decidedly the main character, and her on-again, off-again romance with Henry preoccupies her nearly as much as the murder does. Almost all of Miss Silver’s detection happens off screen, so she never feels connected to the other characters. If you’re reading this for Miss Silver, that might be an issue, but I didn’t mind her smaller role here.
The facts of the case seem simple enough. Moments after a shot rang out, Geoffrey Grey was found standing over the dead body of his uncle, James Everton, holding a gun. Only the day before, James had stated that he was disinheriting Geoffrey. The only other plausible suspects, Geoffrey’s cousins Bertie and Frank Everton, have impeccable alibis. “If they had been specializing in alibis for years they couldn’t have come out of it better.” Even Hilary must admit the evidence looks black against Geoffrey, but she is determined to prove his innocence nonetheless.
Hilary’s journey begins, appropriately, in the train compartment which she shares with a middle-aged couple. When the man leaves, the woman nervously confides in her. Recognizing Hilary from Geoffrey’s trial, she seems to know something about the murder, but “he won’t let me” talk. Later, Hilary is able to identify the woman as Mrs. Mercer, the victim’s housekeeper—one of the witnesses who testified against Geoffrey.
Geoffrey’s wife Marion begs her to leave the case in the past. By night, she sleepwalks in torment, but by day she has achieved a kind of numb acceptance of her situation. Marion is afraid that false hope will destroy her.
“He’s going away from me all the time—dying away from me—and I can’t do anything about it.” She took hold of the back of the armchair and leaned on it trembling. “Think of him coming out after twenty years, quite dead! What can you do for a dead man? He’ll be quite, quite dead by then. And what shall I be like? Perhaps I shall be dead too.”
Instead, Hilary only becomes more determined to restore Marion to happiness, blithely shoving her way through all obstacles. Hilary acts first and thinks later, sometimes much later, but she has excellent instincts. When she impulsively hops a train to a strange town and gets off with no idea of what to do next, it’s great fun to watch her plunge into action. The fact that her tactics are so old-fashioned only makes them more delightful. How can you find someone when you don’t know where they live? Not the phone book—almost no one has a phone. Not the post office—everyone calls for their mail. The obvious answer is milk delivery: “The thing you are least likely to go out and shop for yourself is milk. Nearly everyone lets the milkman call.” A town of any size will have many dairies delivering milk, but Hilary remains dauntless. At another point, she doggedly knocks on the door of every cottage along a seven-mile stretch of road, despite worsening weather.
The morning had been fine, and the weather forecast one of those which thoughtfully provides for every contingency. Hilary, having picked out the pleasant words “bright intervals,” hadn’t really bothered about the rest of it, but as she looked at that low grey sky, lost fragments emerged uneasily from the corners of her mind. There was something about “colder”, and it was certainly turning colder. That didn’t matter, but there was also a piece about “rapid deterioration later,” and she had a gloomy feeling that the word fog came into it somewhere. She ought to have read it more carefully, but the honest truth was that she hadn’t wanted to. She had wanted to get on with this business and get it over, and really, in November, if you allowed yourself to be put off by what the weather forecast said, you might just as well throw in your hand and hibernate.
Her investigation takes her to a wide array of towns and businesses. The enterprising Hilary pawns her jewelry to pay for train tickets and cream teas as she hops from Putney to Edinburgh, between surburban villas, desolate cottages, bicycle shops, garages, and tenements. It’s a lovely window into ordinary British life of the time.
At Ledstow she had tea. She had it in a sort of parlour in the village pub. It was very cold, and stuffy with the stuffiness of a room whose windows have not been opened for months. Everything that could be cleaned was very clean, and everything that could be polished was very highly polished. The red and green linoleum shone like a mirror, and a smell of soap, varnish, turpentine, bacon, onions, and old stuffed furniture thickened the air. There was a sofa and three padded chairs upholstered in an archaic tapestry whose original colour or colours had merged into an even drab. There were paper shavings in the fireplace and, on the mantelshelf above, a bright blue vase with a bunch of pansies painted on it, a copper lustre sugar-bowl with a wreath of lumpy pink and blue fruits below the rim, a horrid little ornament displaying the arms of Colchester (why Colchester?), a brass bedroom candlestick shining like gold, and a pet of a zebra, all stripy, feeding out of a little girl’s hand. The little girl had a sprigged dress with a yellow petticoat, and the zebra carried a pair of panniers, one heaped up with fruit and the other with flowers. Hilary loved him passionately at sight, and by dint of dwelling fondly upon his stripes contrived to forget that the tea was bitter and the butter rancid, and that she was no nearer finding the Mercers than when she had set out.
There are also some moments made ironic by hindsight, such as Henry’s struggle over whether to leave the army to take over the antique shop he’s inherited. Little does he realize that he’ll be right back in uniform just a few years later.
Over the course of the novel, Hilary will face graver situations than a chilly tearoom, which her common sense and rugged good cheer enable her to meet with aplomb. Other aspects of Hilary’s personality are less endearing. Henry is right that she’s flighty, spoiled, and addicted to drama, of which there is far too much in their relationship. (Of course, she’s also right that Henry is “a natural trampler” looking for a doormat.) Worst of all is Hilary’s “imp,” which breaks into verse at random, far too frequent intervals. It is TERRIBLE and may be enough on its own to put off some readers.
For who can overlook the imp, The Case Is Closed offers many charms. Hilary may not be a perfect heroine, but it’s rare to meet a female protagonist this gutsy and irreverent, and she keeps her head when it really counts. Her adventures also expose the reader to aspects of everyday life that are not always portrayed in literature. For most of its length, the plot is more thrillerish than mysterious—it seems fairly clear who is involved, it’s just a matter of proving it, which does involve some tricky detection at the end. As long as Hilary is able to keep her imp at bay, however, The Case Is Closed is a pleasure to read.
For all this going over the same evidence, ultimately, it all boils down to . . . not very much! In the sense that everyone else has an alibi, the case against Geoff may resemble an “impossible” crime. But as each witness is approached, a bit of that airtight case crumbles until you have to ask yourself if anybody in the British legal system was doing their job during the investigation or the trial. Everybody’s evidence appears to have been taken at face value, yet nobody’s testimony stands up to the winsome charms of Hilary Carew, a girl with no particular spark of intelligence and a rather annoying sense of entitlement throughout.
The story played out beautifully, and though I guessed how the mystery would play out the characters and their relationships were engaging and believable. I was involved, and I wanted to be there as events played out.
The Case Is Closed is available as an ebook from Open Road Media in the US, and in paperback and ebook formats from Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. This title is in the public domain in Canada, and a free ebook is available to Canadian readers on Project Gutenberg Canada or Faded Page