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 The tone of the book is, like Miss Silver herself, “quite out of date and tremendously reassuring.”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.” Continue reading “That Affair Next Door (1897) by Anna Katharine Green”

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. Continue reading “Tenant for the Tomb (1971) by Anthony Gilbert”

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”