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 The tone of the book is, like Miss Silver herself, “quite out of date and tremendously reassuring.”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.

That Affair Next Door (1897) by Anna Katharine Green

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

6 stars (7/10 stars)

“Though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them, and as for any peculiar acumen he may have shown in his long and eventful career, why that is a quality which others may share with him, as I hope to be able to prove before finishing these pages.”

There are those who believe Amelia Butterworth is a meddlesome old maid. Among them are her neighbors, the Van Burnams. But it’s hardly Miss Butterworth’s fault that she happened to glance out her window one night just as a man and woman entered the Van Burnam house. Knowing the family is away in Europe, it would be irresponsible not to notify police the next morning. And when the supposedly empty house turns out to contain a dead body, it’s her clear duty to investigate.

Mr. Gryce of the police department is happy to indulge a lady’s fancies. What harm will it do to let Miss Butterworth believe they are rival investigators? Little does he realize how formidable a lady detective can be. “This aged detective is used to women, I have no doubt,” Miss Butterworth gloats, “but he is not used to me.”

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThat Affair Next Door is a fitting debut for the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, as it is likely the first American novel to feature a female detective. In fact, Anna Katharine Green is known as the mother of detective fiction. Her earlier works featured male sleuths, including Ebenezar Gryce, who also plays a significant role in That Affair Next Door. But it’s Miss Amelia Butterworth who steals the show here—not only the first, but one of the best spinster detectives. Though this is a tight story by nineteenth-century standards, modern readers may find it wordy and melodramatic. Whenever Miss Butterworth takes center stage, however, the narrative lives and breathes.

The young woman who lies dead in the Van Burnam house has seemingly met her death by misadventure after knocking a china cabinet down upon herself, smashing her face beyond recognition. Yet it is clear to both Gryce and Butterworth that there is more to the case. The two adult sons of the house, Howard and Franklin Van Burnam, were both in New York at the time of the murder, neither of them able to explain their strange activities. They staunchly insist they have no idea who the dead woman is. Even the finest families have their secrets, however, and no one is better placed to discover them than Amelia Butterworth. She coolly assures Gryce:

“You need not trouble yourself to show me too much politeness. If I meddle in this matter at all it will not be as your coadjutor, but as your rival.”

“My rival?”

“Yes, your rival; and rivals are never good friends until one of them is hopelessly defeated.”

As they struggle to identify the dead woman and her killer, the two detectives embark upon a competition that is light-hearted on Gryce’s side, but deadly serious for Miss Butterworth. Though she declares, “I am clever and am not ashamed to own it,” she can also be opinionated and interfering, which has not won her many friends. She has been bored for most of her life. To succeed in the investigation, Miss Butterworth must learn how to moderate her worst impulses while retaining her own capable nature. In the process, she discovers her life’s work.

I had not known up to this very hour that I had any special gifts. My father, who was a shrewd man of the old New England type, said more times than I am years old (which was not saying it as often as some may think) that Araminta (the name I was christened by, and the name you will find in the Bible record, though I sign myself Amelia, and insist upon being addressed as Amelia, being, as I hope, a sensible woman and not the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen)—that Araminta would live to make her mark; though in what capacity he never informed me, being, as I have observed, a shrewd man, and thus not likely to thoughtlessly commit himself.

The investigation is steeped in fascinating details of life in gilded-age Manhattan, as the indomitable Miss Butterworth charges through genteel parlors, grubby curio shops, and Chinese laundries in search of clues. Everyone she meets is subject to her withering judgment.

Much depends upon subtle details of dress that are less obvious to a male detective; even the unfashionable Miss Butterworth knows that the dead woman, soberly dressed in ready-made clothing, could not be the same woman who owned the expensive and flamboyant couture hat found in the closet. If that is the case, however, what happened to the victim’s own hat? (The idea that she might not have worn one is too horrifying to contemplate. Even the landlady of a boarding house insists, “if she had had no hat on, she wouldn’t have got as far as my parlor mat.”)

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThe smallest nuances of costume, manner, and appearance are dissected in light of nineteenth-century customs, most of them explained well enough to be understood even by those who may not remember the 1890s too well. Inevitably, some references will be lost on the modern reader, but it’s usually easy enough to get the idea. Miss Butterworth insists that her “puff” hairstyle is both stylish and becoming, for instance, but the dubious way everyone else refers to the puffs suggests that they are a long way from the height of fashion.

Since this is a high-society murder, issues of social class are front and center, sometimes presented in a way that seems shockingly blunt. One reason the fashion clues are so important is that they are assumed to reveal the social position of the wearer. The investigators are examining the quality and prices of the garments, but there is a difference between having money and being a lady. That hat in the closet is costly and beautifully made, but no lady would wear such a garish item. The victim’s clothing comes from an upscale department store, but no lady would wear a ready-made dress. Though Miss Butterworth is more of an all-purpose cynic than a snob in the traditional sense, she is finely attuned to what is done and what is not done in old New York families. The Van Burnam case seems strange to her from the start because so much of it does not align with what she would expect from such a family. Is this a clue in itself, or simply a sign that old money can behave just as badly as anyone else?

The mystery is wonderfully complicated. After a certain point in the story, it’s easy to identify the culprit, but harder to guess exactly what happened. There are a lot of small moving parts, each of which fits into its proper place by the end. Interestingly, Mr. Gryce and Miss Butterworth are both shown going about their rounds and, though they are moving in different directions, their solutions seem equally plausible. Neither comes off as buffoonish—they are both doing serious and credible work. Since for Gryce the work is what really matters, he’s able to put his ego aside when he makes a mistake, delighted by all the new possibilities Miss Butterworth is presenting.

Beautiful! I don’t know of anything more interesting! We have not seen the like in years! I can almost congratulate myself upon my mistakes, the features of the case they have brought out are so fine!

For Miss Butterworth, the stakes of their competition are much higher. She relishes the thrill of the chase without ever forgetting that she must show Gryce what female detectives—and Miss Amelia Butterworth in particular—can achieve.

“I never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life,” says Miss Butterworth after delivering her solution. While I wouldn’t go that far myself, That Affair Next Door is a well-crafted gaslight detective story that paints a striking portrait of turn-of-the-century New York City. Amelia Butterworth is the real treasure, though, a heroine who is almost too modern for the book she finds herself in.

Second Opinion

bookwormchatterbox

Some would say that Green purposefully bases her novel upon the actions of a spinster in order to subvert society’s expectations of her; ironically, the woman who is isolated in Victorian society and is effectively good for nothing is the one who solves the case. This in turn reveals to the reader the poor treatment of the spinster in that time period, and instead points the finger of ridicule at the community who takes her for granted. The stereotypical opinion of the ‘old maid’ is dismissed within this novel and I feel this is what makes it so compelling. Granted, a re-reading of this story will not evoke surprise at the outcome, but I believe that it is worth re-visiting Miss Butterworth again in order to observe her development as a strong-willed character in literature; she is a woman who will not accept defeat. Many people see Amelia as a joke, but she is the main character of her own novel and inevitably has the last laugh – a satisfying conclusion where the little old lady outsmarts all of the professional men. 

Availability

That Affair Next Door has just been reissued by the Library of Congress Crime Classics through Poisoned Pen Press. It is also in print from Duke University Press as part of a double volume with Amelia Butterworth’s second adventure, Lost Man’s Lane. This title is also in the public domain.

Tenant for the Tomb (1971) by Anthony Gilbert

Tenant for the Tomb by Anthony Gilbert

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“In my experience, no blackmailer stops short at one victim and most of them overreach themselves in the end. That’s when they get careless. Blackmail may be money for old rope, but even old rope can be twisted into a noose.”

Everyone knows Imogen Garland is not quite all there. Her exuberant fashion and rambling, all-too-honest conversational style have often proved embarrassing to her brother, a member of Parliament. He’s even hired a companion to keep Imogen out of trouble.

The chatty Imogen makes friends wherever she goes. While waiting for the London train, she confides to fellow passengers Dora Chester and Arthur Crook about her dislike for her companion Miss Styles and the number of accidents she has suffered recently. Her point is proven soon enough, as Imogen nearly ends up under the wheels of a train. Dora wonders whether it was really an accident. Arthur Crook knows it wasn’t—someone like Imogen is destined for murder. When you live life on your own terms, sometimes you end up dying on someone else’s.

Tenant for the Tomb by Anthony GilbertI had low expectations for Tenant for the Tomb, only to be very pleasantly surprised. Aside from some occasional fuzziness around the edges, this is an easygoing comic mystery anchored by the unlikely friendship between Imogen and Dora. Like all Anthony Gilbert mysteries, it contains enough plot for about three ordinary books, but here the various narrative threads follow one another quite naturally without ever feeling rushed.

Following the incident with Imogen and Miss Styles, Dora begins uneasily settling into her new home, a supposedly haunted cottage cozily tucked beside the graveyard. “Imogen and her guardian faded out of her mind, ships that pass in the night and leave no track of their passing, or whatever it was the poet had actually said. What she didn’t appreciate was that ships that make a one-way passage sooner or later embark on the return journey, and a second encounter may be of more significance than the first.” Dora is saddened, but not terribly surprised, to read that a local woman has fallen to her death from a London hotel room. What does surprise her is the identity of the dead woman: It’s not Imogen, but Miss Styles, her companion. 

The ultra-respectable hotel is thrown into chaos by Miss Styles’ fall from grace, which is witnessed only by the hysterical Mrs. Huth, who doesn’t know how she’s going to explain all this to her husband back in Surbiton. “It was like some great bird,” she babbles to the crowd in the hotel lobby, “like a great black bird…No one expects to see a body falling through space from…well, from nowhere.”

“Someone had better telephone the husband and tell him what happened,” the man insisted. He was a doctor, secretly as sick a mud that a thing like this should happen on one of his rare free evenings. “He can come up and fetch the car and the lady.” When Mrs. Huth began to babble about Percy not liking driving, the doctor said in curt tones that if she couldn’t think of herself she might think of her fellow drivers. In the condition she was in right now she’d be all over the road, and one fatal accident in an evening was quite sufficient. For while all this parleying was going on, Ted had taken a peek at the victim and had come back looking nearly as white as Mrs. Huth, to say this one had bought it and in God’s name hadn’t anyone got a rug. So Mr. Harlequin and Ted went out and someone rang up Mr. Huth, and Mrs. Harlequin, who’d kept discreetly in the background, called an ambulance, and Mrs. Huth found herself sipping brandy after all. A crowd of idlers, the sort that seem to spring up whenever anything dramatic occurs, were gathering round the hotel entrance like a band of supers waiting for their call. “Haven’t you people got home to go to?” demanded the doctor furiously. “Even vultures have their nests, I’m told.” Then the police car, hooting its siren like a bird of ill omen, came dashing up, followed by an ambulance whose driver remarked, sotto voce, that you didn’t have to pass any bleeding exams to see this one had bought it.

Imogen, who “didn’t exactly fancy staying in a room that, as you might say, had already rejected Miss Plum,” goes on the lam in London. She fits in easily; the streets and parks are full of people with nowhere else to go. Gilbert’s portrayal of the counterculture is less judgmental than many other authors of her generation. The hippies sleeping in the park are polite to Imogen, even lending her a blanket. Yet they also keep a safe distance, realizing that her presence is likely to attract unwanted police attention. There is nothing intimidating, laughable, or romantic about them. They are simply people who live in the park and wear “what looked like his mum’s discarded fur jacket over chestnut-colored velvet trousers,” which is not seen as any more remarkable than Imogen’s doings. It’s also notable that this is the only time Imogen is really seen on her wanderings—for a long time, she is protected by nothing more than the natural invisibility of older women.

Tenant for the Tomb by Anthony GilbertThis proves to an ongoing theme in Tenant for the Tomb. The more we see of Imogen, the more clear it becomes that she is not insane. She’s simply a middle-aged woman who’s not afraid to call attention to herself or take up the space she’s entitled to in the world. In that, she and Dora are birds of a feather. The sensible Dora would seem like an odd fit with Imogen, but they both live their lives based on the belief that “the norm was oneself, and the rest of the world—all those who differ from you, I mean—was ab or sub.” I will admit that I prefer Dora’s more straightforward approach to Imogen’s scatty one, but events will prove that Imogen is much sharper and more quick-thinking than she appears.

This makes Imogen’s nickname all the more annoying. Arthur Crook instantly dubs her “Dotty” based on her apparent barminess, and only refers to her by that name throughout the book. Confusingly, the narrative then begins calling her “Dotty” and “Imogen” interchangeably. Much later, Imogen claims this is what everyone calls her because she is so crazy. Though she claims to be amused, it not only seems cruel of the book to insist on using a mean-spirited nickname, it also adds a lot of confusion to the early part of the story, which is hectic enough as it is. The nickname is never really properly introduced, it just starts being used out of nowhere during a sequence that includes a lot of new characters, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether this is supposed to be Imogen or a different person altogether. Imogen also gives Miss Styles a rather irritating nickname—“Miss Plum,” because her first name is Victoria. I assume that is a…type of plum? At any rate, it’s not funny and she uses it constantly.

Together, Imogen and Dora set out to discover whether the prim Miss Styles, who was obsessed with Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, had some horrors in her own background. Imogen’s sister-in-law Flora hired her as a companion based on their war service together, but, as Flora explains:

It was an odd thing about the war, it doesn’t and didn’t seem like a part of one’s personal life. A curtain fell in 1939 and was lifted six years later, but the history within the confines of those curtains was a separate existence. Nothing that happened to me during that tie, particularly after my unit went to France, seems to have any connection with myself, the woman who is Sir Charles Garland’s wife and Timothy Garland’s mother…It’s like a thick cut out of the middle of the loaf.

It’s not at all clear what Miss Styles has been up to since 1944. Crook and company’s efforts to unravel her activities take them from wartime Normandy to a genteel seaside hotel full of worrying encounters on cliff edges. All of this is just as it should be.

The ending of Tenant for the Tomb is less satisfying than what comes before. Gilbert makes the classic mistake of assuming that if she does not follow up on a thunderingly obvious possibility, readers will simply forget that it was ever introduced and be shocked by it a few pages later. That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t such a drawn-out process. (Think Roman Hat Mystery. It’s that egregious.) This is also the point where it suddenly struck me that there were no suspects for this crime. A killer who comes out of nowhere is always disconcerting, even if Crook does make a good case.

Tenant for the Tomb embodies the spirit of its heroine. It is a shambling, likable creature that gets the job done in its own way, as long as you don’t worry too much about the details. While not the most rigorous mystery, there is a warm, goodhearted quality to the story that is always welcome.

Second Opinion

My Reader’s Block

I think this is my favorite Arthur Crook mystery yet. I’ve found that I much prefer the stories where the lawyer shows up early in the proceedings. As I’ve mentioned before, Gilbert/Malleson is much more effective when she’s writing about her protagonist and his interactions with other characters. This particular plot contained numerous laugh-out-loud moments, especially when Crook, Imogene, and Dora are all on stage. The conversation runs like a comedy team’s patter routine. And the plot is quite good too. I had my heart set on a certain culprit and managed to disregard any and all clues that Gilbert/Malleson provided along the way.

Availability

Tenant for the Tomb is available as an ebook in the UK from the Murder Room.

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”

Fear for Miss Betony (1941) by Dorothy Bowers

Fear For Miss Betony by Dorothy Bowers

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“She supposed spinsters had their uses, but after living in the house with them for three months it was hard to see what these were.”

At the age of sixty-one, Emma Betony has nothing more to look forward to than a room at the home for decayed gentlewomen—if they’re willing to overlook her father having been a greengrocer. So when she receives a job offer from former student Grace Aram, Emma is intrigued.

She soon finds out that Grace expects much more from her old governess than a few French lessons. A poisoner is loose at Makeways School. Grace believes that Emma can solve the crime. Emma herself isn’t so sure, especially after learning about the Great Ambrosio, a fortune-teller who seems to have the whole house under his spell. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see danger in her future. Continue reading “Fear for Miss Betony (1941) by Dorothy Bowers”

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Young man, I have had the good or bad fortune to have been in contact with several notorious and unsavory cases of homicide during the past two years. Perhaps the poor fellow over there looks like just another case of heart failure to you, but I’m getting so I can detect the very smell of murder.”

A lean forefinger wagged in O’Rourke’s face, and Miss Withers pronounced solemnly, “I can smell murder now!”

The man in brown never intended to take the seaplane to Catalina, but after missing the steamer, he has no choice. Anyway, the flight is only twenty minutes. Even a nervous flyer can handle that.

Suddenly, turbulence throws the man into a panic. “I’m dying,” he cries. “I don’t want to die!” Everyone thinks it’s a case of nerves, but by the time the Dragonfly lands, it carries eight living passengers and one corpse. The man in brown “hadn’t wanted to die, but he was dead.” Continue reading “The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer”

See Rome and Die (1957) by Louisa Revell

See Rome and Die by Louisa Revell

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“The police here aren’t going to find either an Italian or an American murderer. Not at the rate they’re going. They just aren’t doing anything. They don’t seem to grasp even the first principles of investigating a crime.”

Miss Julia Tyler is finally making the trip to Rome she’s always dreamed of. Practically the moment she arrives, however, she runs into an acquaintance whose well-meaning invitations are seriously disrupting her sightseeing. As a retired Latin teacher, Miss Julia is more interested in ancient Romans than modern ones—until she learns that one of her new friends is Jane Steele, the heiress whose secretary was just found dead under mysterious circumstances.

It doesn’t take long before the feisty spinster is investigating murder, fraud, and adultery among the Italian nobility. Life may be sweet in Rome, but someone is making sure it’s also brutally short. Continue reading “See Rome and Die (1957) by Louisa Revell”