“Now I want to say to you with the utmost gravity that you cannot afford to assume anyone’s innocence in this matter. I do not ask you to assume anyone’s guilt, but I do ask you in every case to adopt the same caution as if you were dealing with a person whom you knew to be guilty.”
“But that is horrible!”
“Murder is horrible,” said Miss Silver.
Rachel Treherne is a sensible person. When her staircase is greased with a slippery polish, she dismisses it as a simple accident. After her bedroom curtains catch fire, Rachel is sure there must be some explanation. But when her box of candy is poisoned right after she receives a series of threatening letters, even Rachel must admit that this is more than just coincidence. “You have had that money long enough. It is other people’s turn now,” the letters say. “You have lived long enough…Get ready to die.”
Each January, Rachel rewrites her will, cutting out relatives who have behaved badly during the previous year. Her whole family knows this was her father’s dying wish. Has one of Rachel’s nearest and dearest gotten tired of waiting for their share, or is an unknown enemy plotting against her?
Lonesome Road is a superior entry in the Miss Silver series that deftly examines the horrors of family life. As she attempts to fend off a killer, Rachel learns that every member of her family is a threat to her in one way or another—she is caught in a trap of her own construction. There are two plots unfolding in parallel, each enriching the other. One is the mystery of who is trying to murder Rachel. The other is the question of whether she can make her way through a thicket of family obligations to carve out a life of her own.
Under the terms of her father’s will, Rachel has been given sole control of his fortune. Not only is she in charge of future inheritances, she is also responsible for doling out funds during her lifetime. Rachel’s older sister Mabel Wadlow especially resents being passed over by their father (which, fair enough). She and her husband Ernest are a constant, aggrieved presence in Rachel’s home. They are always trying to cadge money for their children, Maurice the socialist and Cherry, whose “prettiness had something brittle about it—the very fair hair with a sugar-loaf cap crammed on amongst its curls, the very thin hands with their pointed blood-red nails, the painted arch of the lips.” The four Wadlows are Rachel’s closest, and therefore most troublesome, relations.
For a moment Rachel saw them, not as part of her family, but as four singularly irritating and disagreeable people. It was like looking through a tiny hole in a dark curtain and seeing a room beyond and the people in it. A strange room, and strange people. A bright light beat on them and showed her just how odious they were. For that brilliant half minute she disliked them extremely, wondered why she had put up with them for so long, and made up her mind to send them packing. Then the hole in the curtain closed. The light was gone. The moment was over. The Wadlows were family again. You were fond of them, you put up with them, you could never, never, never be rid of them. Even more truly than in the marriage service they were yours till death did you part. It was not an enlivening thought.
Other relatives come and go more irregularly. Rachel’s cousins, the delightful Cosmo and dreary do-gooder Ella, are polar opposites who have only one thing in common: an endless need for cash. Rachel has a special affection for her young cousins Richard and Caroline, who she hopes will marry, but they are acting most suspiciously of all.
All the Trehernes are accustomed to falling back on Rachel’s money, which means they are dependent upon Rachel’s whims. We see her approve some requests for money, deny others, and give some applicants far less than they want. Wentworth also shows the toll this takes on Rachel, whose emotional and financial lives are hopelessly entangled. Still, her business decisions are explicitly tied to moral judgments. Rachel is essentially a more sympathetic version of that rich family matriarch who uses purse strings to control her relatives—a natural murder victim.
At this pivotal moment, a new man enters Rachel’s life. Gale Brandon is an American with a certain rough-hewn charm. In Rachel’s experience, however, her fortune is as likely to put men off as to attract them, leaving her pessimistic about romance: “It meant that she must brace herself to meet pain, to endure it, to tread it down.” Her family eagerly points out that Gale has been on hand during at least one attempt on her life. Then again, it’s in their best interest for Rachel to remain single. Patricia Wentworth is known for having a soft spot for young lovers, but it’s also common for her books to feature somewhat older characters like Rachel who get a chance at love later in life. Here, the romances play out more ambiguously than expected. The relationship between Rachel and Gale is handled especially well; their bond is convincing, yet Gale remains inscrutable enough to keep his motives up in the air until the very end.
Through it all, life goes on as it always has, with even the most extreme events having to simply fit in as best they can around the rhythms of daily existence.
Civilized life is at the mercy of its own routine. Whatever may be happening in a household, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner follow one another inexorably. Birth, marriage, divorce, meetings, partings, estrangements, love, hate, suspicion, jealousy, battle, murder, and sudden death—through all these comes the sound of the domestic bell or gong, with its summons to eat and drink. Whether you die tomorrow or today, another meal is served.
The only person Rachel can trust is Miss Silver, a total stranger. This is an early appearance for the former governess, who “was in the scholastic profession for twenty years…I disliked it extremely.” Life as a private detective suits her much better, but she makes good use of her schoolroom demeanor to keep her clients on the straight and narrow. “When it comes to attempted murder, it is no use letting things slide,” Miss Silver chides sternly. Despite her cutesy mannerisms, which find her endlessly knitting baby clothes, worrying about her niece’s morals, and apologetically coughing before she speaks, no one could be tougher or less sentimental on the job than Miss Silver. She infiltrates the Treherne household by posing as one of Rachel’s charity cases. As she explains, “I find that the manner in which people behave to someone whom they consider quite unimportant is often highly illuminating,” and that is certainly the case here.
Many of the books I’ve read lately have nailed the beginning and ending only to lose steam in the middle. Lonesome Road is just the opposite. The opening is pretty standard for this series and the ending, while creepy, is far too protracted. It’s the middle of the book that is so fascinating, as Wentworth digs into the characters of each family member and the actions (including Rachel’s) that created their unhealthy dynamic. The real mystery is whether there is still time for the Trehernes to escape from this situation, or whether they’re already in too deep.
Kirkus, March 9, 1939
Light — little or no mystery to the alert reader — an affable tale.
Lonesome Road is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Open Road 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 at Faded Page.