“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 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 The tone of the book is, like Miss Silver herself, “quite out of date and tremendously reassuring.”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.
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.
There are crazy coincidences but it’s still readable.
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.