Fear by Night (1934) by Patricia Wentworth

Fear by Night by Patricia Wentworth

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“No one lives here, and no one comes here. The people who live round about, they wouldn’t come here if you paid them. And why wouldn’t they? Because, I’m telling you, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous and it’s deep.”

All Ann Vernon wants is lunch, but her boyfriend Charles is late again. As she waits for him in the lobby of the Luxe Hotel, she can’t help overhearing a conversation nearby. “If he dies the whole thing will be in the papers. She must be got away at once before she knows,” says one man. “And then?” asks the other. A heavy silence is the only reply. As soon as Charles arrives, Ann forgets all about it. She has no idea these strangers are talking about her.

Fear by Night adds a few twists to the standard woman-in-jeopardy plot, though even the wonderfully strange ending is not enough to keep the second half from dragging. An heiress in danger, a lonely island, unscrupulous relations who will stop at nothing…these are classic elements, but an author also has to work pretty hard to make them surprising. To her credit, Patricia Wentworth doesn’t belabor this part of the plot. Refreshing as this is, it winds up leading to a different, much less mysterious, kind of story. It’s an easy read, often pleasurable, but just as often too drawn-out.

Fear by Night by Patricia WentworthThe early chapters maintain a good balance of revelation and mystery. Straight off, Ann’s great-uncle Elias Paulett does what so many prospective murder victims ought to do. He knows that his great-niece Hilda and his secretary Gale Anderson are plotting against him. Gleefully, Elias tells Gale that he has left his fortune to Hilda’s cousin Ann, whom none of them have ever met. With no inheritance to hope for, it is now in Hilda and Gale’s best interest to keep him alive. Elias doesn’t seem to care that he has purchased his own safety at the cost of Ann’s: if she dies before her uncle, Hilda will become the heiress.

Some time later in London, Ann is unemployed and hungry. The conversation she overhears in the hotel barely registers. She has problems of her own, like the fact that Charles keeps proposing to her and she’s afraid someday she’ll say yes. As deeply as she loves Charles, Ann knows that he needs a wife with money.

There’s nothing the least bit heart-smiting about being poor, you know. It’s very deteriorating because you have to keep on thinking about money all the time—horrid, sordid things like, “Will it run to a bus fare?” or “Can I have butter to-day?” Everyone ought to have so much money that they never have to think about it at all. You’ve no idea how nice I should be if I had a thousand a year.

When she is offered a job as a lady’s companion, she can’t afford to turn it down. Charles is suspicious, but how could an old woman like Mrs. Halliday be anything other than who she says she is? After all, “villains in films never make marrow jam.”

It was a scene of the deepest and dullest domesticity…How could you look at Mrs. Halliday’s cap, with its crisp net ruching and its little bunches of black and violet baby ribbon, and believe that you were in danger? […]

Quite suddenly she felt as if she couldn’t bear it any longer. It wrenched you too badly to live on both sides of that divisionto be dull, and safe, and Victorian, and respectable, and Mrs. Halliday’s companion, and at the same time to be someone who was being plotted againstsomeone who had to be got out of the way…someone who was to be murdered. You couldn’t be both these peopleyou simply couldn’t. And something kept forcing it upon you.

This early section of the book is full of intrigue, as the reader suspects, without quite knowing for sure, what is being planned for Ann. That job offer is strange (any position explicitly stating that orphans are preferred should be looked upon with skepticism). Yet Mrs. Halliday and her bootlegger son Jimmy are well-known figures in London. Jimmy is famously devoted to his mother; he would never involve her in anything shady. They’ve been visiting their holiday home on the Scottish island of Loch Dhu for years.

Fear by Night by Patricia WentworthJust as the reader is settling in, happily anticipating revelations to come, the whole scheme is suddenly laid out, leaching all the suspense out of the story. It isn’t long before Ann starts putting the pieces together as well. There are still a few chills to be wrung out of an intelligent (if sometimes misguided) heroine trying to get herself off an isolated island, and Wentworth wrings for dear life, but the action becomes repetitive and predictable.

As the characters go through their well-worn paces, they are aided by the authentically creepy setting of Loch Dhu. The Hallidays’ vacation home, with the facade of a modern villa disguising an ancient, maze-like interior, is Loch Dhu’s only inhabited building. The other cottages are crumbling to ruin; their owners fled to the mainland in fear. Ann, who has other things to be afraid of, loves to roam the island, hypnotized by its beauties and terrors.

Under the veiled half light she saw something that moved among the ripples—something without shape, a darkness in the water, a darkness that moved. The clouds above were denser, and the half light failed. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t see at all. She felt a cold and dreadful terror of the dark. And Mary had said, “Keep away from the water or it’ll get ye.” She couldn’t see, but she thought she could hear the wash of that dark, moving thing. The cold fear broke into panic, and she ran, scrambling and slipping, up the steep path to the house. Half way up she looked back and saw that the clouds had shifted. The water lay bare and open to the moon. There was nothing there.

Loch Dhu’s caves, cliffs, and bottomless lake are ominous, with hints of something primeval going on below the surface. Will these forces of nature help Ann, or doom her to destruction?

Fear by Night begins with great promise and concludes with an ending so bizarre that the author feels compelled to add an epilogue defending it. I kind of love the oddity of the conclusion, but cannot deny that there’s a certain once-out-of-the-pit quality to the execution. Part of the ending’s interest comes from the fact that it’s the first unexpected thing to happen in at least fifty pages. While Fear by Night does offer quite a few pleasures, the plot is ultimately just a little too thin.

Second Opinion

Todd Downing, Daily Oklahoman, March 4, 1934

Maybe it’s the restful familiarity of the formula; maybe it’s the writer’s real skill in narration; maybe it’s taste on our part for vicarious something or other. At any rate, we—and, it would seem, many others—like books like Fear by Night. Serious-minded fans can pass it by.

Availability

Fear by Night is available as an ebook from Open Road Media in the US and in ebook and paperback formats from Dean Street Press in the UK

The Case Is Closed (1937) by Patricia Wentworth

The Case Is Closed by Patricia Wentworth

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

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 by Patricia Wentworth 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.

Second Opinion

ahsweetmysteryblog

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.

Fleur in Her World

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.

Availability

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

The Girl in the Cellar (1961) by Patricia Wentworth

The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“When you had done murder you couldn’t trust anyone. That was one of the ways in which evil punished itself…There was no reason why they should trust her. There was murder between them.”

All she knows is that her first name is Anne. Everything else is a blank. She doesn’t remember who she is, how she got into the cellar, or what happened to the girl who lies dead at the foot of the steps. Blindly, she stumbles out of the empty house and onto the first bus that comes along.

Anne is in luck. One of the other passengers is Miss Silver. The former governess has a keen eye for people in trouble, and Anne’s trouble could hardly be worse. As she heads uneasily toward a strange house and a husband she can’t remember, Anne has no idea whether she is a victim, or a killer.

The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia WentworthThe Girl in the Cellar reads more like a promising first draft than a complete novel—and, since it was published the same year as Patricia Wentworth’s death, it’s quite possible that’s exactly what it is. Despite its brevity, the story still manages to drag in spots, especially as characters tell each other what has already happened over and over. The solution is incredibly abrupt, leaving the reader with more questions than answers about the criminal plot. Amnesia is always an excellent starting point, however, and although the copyright is 1961, there is no hint of distressing modernity present. The tone of the book is, like Miss Silver herself, “quite out of date and tremendously reassuring.” Wentworth’s books are always cozy in the best sense, and this one is no exception. While I recognize that, on an objective level, this book is not very good, somehow it is exactly what I need at the moment.

Anne is not the most proactive of heroines, but it can’t be denied that she’s in a tight spot. The only clue to her existence is a letter in her handbag identifying her as Mrs. James Fancourt, on her way to meet her husband’s relatives for the first time. Something about this whole setup feels wrong to Anne, but she’s in no position to argue.

From the moment when she stood in the dark, four steps up from a girl’s murdered body, to the last conscious moment before she slipped into the darkness of sleep, it was all there. But back beyond that dark moment there was nothing. There was nothing at all. She didn’t know who she was, or why she was here. There was cloud where there should have been memory. There was nothing but a dark cloud.

The peaceful life at Haleycott with her husband’s aunts should restore Anne to health, but it only confuses her more. Her “husband” Jim reassures her that her memory will come back, and that the aunts suspect nothing: “Lilian’s all right, but she’s a fool. And Harriet—oh, they’re all right, but they haven’t as much sense as you could put on a threepenny bit.” Anne isn’t so sure, however. Small things here and there make her suspect that Haleycott may not be the safe haven it appears. “Lilian was looking at her with the strangest expression. A little picture came up in Anne’s mind—the picture of a cat waiting by a mouse-hole. Lilian was looking at her like that.”

This kind of spider-in-the-teacup paranoia is where Patricia Wentworth excels, the familiar rendered slightly uncanny. Anne finds herself in a world of women—nice, conventional ladies who are able to carry out acts of courage and treachery simply because no one expects it of them. This is fortunate, since Anne herself is practically useless. The most vivid of her new friends is Miss Carstairs, scourge of ladies’ companions and female relations.

Miss Carstairs remained seated until they were half way across the room. Then she got up and stood leaning on a black crooked stick and looking so exactly like an illustration in an old-fashioned book of fairy stories that Anne could hardly believe her eyes. She was the exact image of the Wicked Fairy who had terrorised her childish dreams. To begin with, she was only four foot eight or nine. It was a child’s stature but not a childish face. The cheeks were pendulous and the nose curved. The eyes were very keen and black. And black too was the elaborately dressed hair—coal black without a grey hair to soften it. It lay above the peering brow in elaborate folds and scallops, tight, neat, and extraordinarily artificial. She wore a curious black velvet garment pinned in front with an elaborate and apparently very valuable diamond brooch. She stood there leaning on her stick and waited for them to come to her.

Janet bent and kissed one of the yellow cheeks. The embrace was received without any return. It was endured, not reciprocated. The little creature received it, waited for it to be over, and went on waiting.

“Well?” Miss Carstairs greets Anne, “What do you make of me? Do I eat the young, or don’t I?” That is the question Anne must ask herself every time she meets someone new. Can this person be trusted? Are they plotting against me? Her helplessness throws her upon the mercy of people she thinks are strangers, but who may be very old enemies. Not even Jim or Miss Silver are above suspicion.

The Girl in the Cellar is a slight but pleasing story that mostly keeps the reader’s interest thanks to its irresistible hook. Though Anne’s passivity is tiresome, and mires the whole thing in the doldrums for a while, some interesting plot developments jump in to save the day. Wentworth in her prime could have made something really compelling out of these ingredients. As it is, The Girl in the Cellar is no more than pleasant and familiar, but that’s not always such a bad thing.

Second Opinions

BooksPlease

I think the opening of the book is the best part, setting up a scene of suspense and mystery. For most of the book Anne is suffering from amnesia but there is so much repetition of what little facts Anne knows that it became tedious reading, because it’s not just Anne who goes over and over what has happened but other characters too. I think the repetition lessened the sense of suspense, and overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.

Pining for the West

There are crazy coincidences but it’s still readable.

Availability

The Girl in the Cellar is available as an ebook from Open Road in the US and 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.

Lonesome Road (1939) by Patricia Wentworth

Lonesome Road by Patricia Wentworth

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“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? Continue reading “Lonesome Road (1939) by Patricia Wentworth”

Beggar’s Choice (1930) by Patricia Wentworth

Beggars Choice by Patricia Wentworth

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’m going to ask you whether you’ve got an an enemy. No, I’m not—I’m going to ask you who your enemy is. I don’t need to ask whether you’ve got one.”

The day a man’s boots wear out, he’s finally hit rock bottom. After three years of poverty, Car Fairfax has reached that point. If he doesn’t get work soon, he’ll starve, but his appearance is so shabby it seems impossible. A chance meeting with Isobel Tarrant, the love of his life, only depresses him further. What could he ever offer her?

He barely notices when a man shoves a handbill into his fist. In fact, he nearly throws the paper away—until its strange message catches his eye. “Do you want to make five hundred pounds? If you do and are willing to earn it, write to Box Z.10.” Car would do almost anything for five hundred pounds, but this job may cost more than he’s prepared to give. Continue reading “Beggar’s Choice (1930) by Patricia Wentworth”

The Listening Eye (1955) by Patricia Wentworth

The Listening Eye by Patricia Wentworth

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“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. Continue reading “The Listening Eye (1955) by Patricia Wentworth”