“If people can only prolong their lives by being vampires and sucking the last drop of blood out of everyone around them they would be a great deal better dead.”
No one can say Althea Graham isn’t a dutiful daughter. She has given up everything to care for her invalid mother, even her engagement to Nicholas Carey. Althea has had five years to think about that decision. Sometimes she wonders whether she made the right choice. Her mother only seems to have her “heart attacks” when Althea disagrees with her. The rest of the time, she seems perfectly healthy; well enough, even, to dream of pulling up roots and leaving Grove Hill altogether, wandering the globe in search of new audiences for her pallid charms. Althea doesn’t want to sell their house. It would mean cutting the last ties binding her to her lost love.
When Nicholas returns, Althea must weigh her own happiness against her mother’s life. The two lovers have always met in the gazebo behind Althea’s home. They feel safe there. As it turns out, however, that gazebo is the most dangerous place of all.
The Gazebo is a low-key, but still enjoyable, village mystery that doesn’t stray far from Patricia Wentworth’s tried and true style. The murder is almost a minor concern against the greater threats posed by servant problems, falling dividends, and nouveau-riche neighbors; tradition and young love always win out in the end. The book is a little too long for the story it has to tell, with five pounds of plot rattling around in a ten-pound bag. The characters and village backdrop provide enough interest to compensate, however. What Wentworth delivers, as always, is a proper golden-age-style detective story with all the trimmings, even if The Gazebo is not one of her very best.
The whole affair begins with a rather strange offer. The Grahams have never even thought of selling their home. Yet, within the span of a few days, they receive two separate bids for it, offers for far more than the house is worth. The restless Mrs. Graham is eager to sell. She “wore her invalidism in a very finished and elegant manner,” which she feels could be shown to better advantage against the backdrop of a Mediterranean cruise. The house was left to Althea in her father’s will, however, and she is not only reluctant to sell, but highly suspicious of the would-be buyers.
Mrs. Graham realizes, too late, that she has created a monster. By preventing Althea’s marriage, she now finds herself saddled with a dowdy spinster daughter who refuses to budge an inch from her childhood home. All she needs is a little time to work on Althea, though. Mrs. Graham is an expert manipulator: “There isn’t one turn or twist in the game of getting her own way that she hasn’t got at her fingertips, and as long as she as anything to gain by it she’ll use them all.”
This first section of the book is the most compelling, as a battle of wills plays out between mother and daughter in a village full of colorful, gossipy characters. Althea’s depression and insecurities are well-drawn. She is so beaten down that Nicholas’s return, far from being good news, plunges her into a misery she does not dare to show.
If anyone saw her, she was just looking in at the window. No one was to know that it was because she could no longer turn her face to the street. Civilization has not destroyed the primitive emotions, but it insists that they should function in private. The extremities of happiness, pain, despair, and shame must not affront the public gaze. It was shame, burning and overwhelming shame, that had come upon Althea.
The couple’s reunion is shattered by the discovery of Mrs. Graham’s corpse in the summerhouse, only minutes after Nicholas storms away from their heated confrontation. At first, it appears there will be no witnesses to either support or refute their account. It soon develops, however, that the night of the murder is a remarkably active one, with Althea and her mother sneaking in and out of the house as countless strangers creep along outside the back gate. In the usual way of these things, half the village seems to have been out wandering lonely roads in the dead of night; it’s a wonder that all of these interested parties manage to avoid tumbling over each other in the darkness. With so many witnesses on the scene, timing will be everything in solving this crime. Unfortunately for Nicholas, time is the one thing he doesn’t have on his side—until Miss Silver joins the case.
Like Miss Marple, Miss Silver is one of those deceptively sweet-looking old ladies whose long lives have left them unsurprised by anything human nature has to offer. “As far as she was concerned, the human race was glass-fronted. She looked not so much at them as through them, and whether they liked it or not, she saw whatever there was to see.” Unlike Miss Marple, she is also rather sentimental about romance. Wentworth seems to have a particular soft spot for couples, like Althea and Nicholas, who get a second chance at love after years apart. The relationship here is especially affecting because Althea’s miserable life with her mother is so convincingly portrayed.
The murder investigation itself drags on a little too long. Inspector Frank Abbott’s only idea for the case is to sit tight until one of the witnesses changes their story. Wentworth even adds a second mystery to perk things up, but deploys it rather poorly. The question of why so many people suddenly want to buy the Graham house is hinted at throughout the book, only to come to a rather abrupt conclusion at the very end. Both the A and B plots have the same structure, with loads of clues at the start and finish but little action in between—if the setups had been more varied, it would go a long way to making the middle of the book more lively.
The case seems to boil down to a question of insiders versus outsiders. It is worth noting that aside from Althea herself, none of the area’s longtime residents are considered suspects, even the one who was outside the Grahams’ garden gate on the night of the murder. Several groups of older ladies try their hands at sleuthing, more in the hope of unearthing some fresh neighborhood scandal than a serious attempt at crime-solving. Chief among them are the Pimm sisters, who have perfected a brisk, assembly-line approach to gathering gossip (much to the dismay of the youngest, whose performance reviews from her sisters are always brutal). The Pimms’ main rivals in this field are Miss Moxon and Mrs. Doyle, who are opposites in every way except their love of intrigue.
[Miss Moxon] was tall and thin. Mrs. Doyle was as round as a dumpling but full of energy. She undertook shopping for people who were abroad. She also met schoolchildren and saw them across London. In the intervals, she wrote numerous letters to her married sons and daughters, who were scattered round the world in both directions from China to Peru. Miss Moxon only did cross-word puzzles, but she did them very slowly and they sufficed.
Delightful as these village characters are, there is also a darker side to small-town life. In an insular society, newcomers are viewed with suspicion simply for existing. Even individuals who grew up in Grove Hill and subsequently left, like Nicholas, are considered tainted by having lived elsewhere. (Abbott even entertains the possibility that Nicholas has become violent as a result of his travels in Africa!)
Wentworth herself obviously doesn’t care for flashy people, like Nicholas’s distant cousin Ella Harrison, who “combined showy good looks with a vivacious manner. She regarded bridge as a convenient means of getting three people round a table who would be more or less obliged to listen to her.” As a result there is a certain snobbishness that creeps into the narrative. However, Wentworth’s skill in drawing realistic characters usually ensures that even these vulgar outsiders often have qualities that are appealing or poignant. Here, for example, the reader is invited to empathize with the tragic life of Mrs. Blount. Left alone in rented rooms all day by her bullying husband, she finds her only consolation in women’s magazines.
She was a simple woman and a most unhappy one. It soothed this unhappiness to read about other people who were unhappy, and who got over it and lived happily ever after. It wasn’t that she thought it would happen to her, she just liked to read about it happening to other people. It was for the same reason that she read every word of the advice on beauty culture—“If your skin is inclined to be greasy—if you are getting a double chin—if there are too many of those fine lines around your eyes—if you are inclined to lose weight, to put on weight—if your face is too long, too wide, too plump, too thin…” There were ways in which you could put everything right, and she never got tired of reading about them. She didn’t get as far as imagining herself doing any of the things that were recommended. Never for an instant did she picture herself with wavy hair, a transfigured skin, eyebrows carefully shaped and darkened, eye-shadow, rouge, powder, and lipstick. She just liked to read about these things.
For me, The Gazebo has a similar appeal, the pleasure of a world where “there were ways in which you could put everything right.” This is, of course, the cliché about detective stories between the wars. The reality of golden-age detection was always messier than that, however, abounding with false solutions, fallible detectives, and killers who get away with it. Wentworth’s work, while not as brilliant as Christie, Carr, Berkeley, et al., very satisfactorily fills that niche of restoring order to an increasingly chaotic world. Virtue is rewarded, villainy is punished, and life goes on, just as it always has.
Unquestionably The Gazebo conforms to many of the stereotypes of Golden Age detective fiction. Although individual titles in the series will vary in quality, overall Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries are remarkable for the perfection of their “classic” milieu. For me it’s this quality that makes fascinating even minor “Wentworks” (if you will), such as The Gazebo.
The Gazebo (also published as The Summerhouse) is available in ebook and audiobook formats from Open Road.