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“ ‘How can a poor policeman compete?  You can take the village lid off and see how the wheels are going round.  Gladys and Allan are people to you.  You know their relations to the ninth and tenth degree, where I don’t even know they exist!’ “

This is Chief Constable Randal March speaking to an elderly lady who knits and asks questions and observes and deduces and solves murder mysteries before the police.  Is it Miss Marple?  No.  It’s Miss Maud Silver in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1951), the third of the 32 Miss Silver novels.

It’s easy to get tied up in comparing Marple and Silver, but thankfully several other people have already done this, so that’s one less thing on the To Do list [1].  To put it briefly, the two characters appeared almost simultaneously in the late 1920s, with Marple just pipping the post in a short story of 1927 [2] but Silver beating her to novel form in 1928 [3].  Presumably this means that Wentworth’s creation may predate Christie’s in terms of the actual writing.

The Author

Like so many Golden Age authors of detective fiction, the name ’Patricia Wentworth’ was of course a pseudonym.  The ‘Wentworth’ came from the middle name of a stepson who had been killed in the First World War.  In real life, Dora Amy Elles was born in 1877 in Missourie, India, to a British military family – her father was a General and her mother a Lady.

As with many empire children, she was sent back to England to be educated.  She married twice, both times to Lt Colonels called George.  She had one daughter of her own as well as the stepsons.  After her first husband’s death in 1906 she moved to Camberley in Surrey, won a prize for her first novel in 1910 (an astonishing 250 guineas) for a romance of the French Revolution called A Marriage under Terror.

But we have to wait till 1928 for the first book with Miss Silver.  That was Grey Mask, then came a long gap while she experimented with other characters.

It was almost 10 years before The Case is Closed was published (1937), followed more closely by Lonesome Road (1939).

But it was during the Second World War that we see her Miss Silver production rocket, often more than one book a year, so most belong to the 1940s and 50s.  The final one The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year of Wentworth’s death at the age of 82.

Miss Maud Silver

Miss Maud Silver is a former governess and teacher who runs her own solo detective agency.  She is a reassuring figure from the past who likes to knit and quote Tennyson.  She has her own flat and office, uses business cards and charges fees for her work – a real professional.  She is particularly good at helping the relatively wealthy middle class, injured by lost love, war, theft, or some form of abuse, and sorting out their broken lives.  The books read like an Elizabeth Goudge novel with detection, or an Ethel Lina White story of a woman in jeopardy – but this time people get a spinster knitter to the rescue!

The Plot

Miss Silver Comes to Stay is the sixteenth book in the series.  Miss Silver has planned an innocent trip to see an old school friend in the country, but of course this not how things turn out.  The main character, an attractive middle-aged woman called Rietta Cray, first spots Miss Silver in the local village store. “She looked less like a detective than anyone Rietta could have imagined… the little lady who looked like a governess…” – probably because Miss Silver had indeed enjoyed twenty years “in the scholastic profession” [4].  Inevitably Miss Silver is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of James Lessiter which is shortly to take place, even though its roots go back twenty five years.  He has inherited Melling House from his mother who previously let distant relative Catherine Welby live in the gate house of the manor and gave her some furniture and precious items – or did she only lend them?  James intends to find out and get them back, which means  Catherine is now in financial trouble.  And does Rietta’s nephew, Carr Robertson, have a very good reason to hate James?  And have servants or their offspring also been stealing from him?  When James goes to the family solicitor for help in sorting it all out, he might get more than he bargained for.

There are lots of clues spread around in these complicated relationships, plus in the steadily revealed timetable of who visited James on that last night and for what reason.  I found it easy to get involved and start rooting for the characters as Wentworth describes them like intimate friends.  The setting is also so very well realised.  I’m glad to say that I was so involved that I didn’t notice who ‘did’ it, as in fact it was very well hidden.  I got the feel of “this hard post-war world” [5] and felt invested in the fate of the characters.  One sub-plot was particularly interesting – the revived romance between Carr and Elizabeth Moore.  This in particular reminded me of an Elizabeth Goudge novel.  After years apart, involving war and other relationships with the wrong people, they were together at last:

 ‘Elizabeth’s world had come back to normal again…. She got up and began to make tea, fetching the kettle from the kitchen, moving about the small domestic tasks as if they were the whole of love and service.  It was perhaps the happiest hour she had ever known.  To receive back all you have lost, all that you have not even hoped for, to be allowed to give again what you have kept unspent, is joy beyond words.” [6]

That could sum up the situation for several key characters – the ones who survive the  revenge and bloodletting.


This Patricia Wentworth mystery is not just about restoring the moral order of the universe by punishing evil and rewarding good.  It is also about the restoring of relationship.  Right Order also includes Right Relationship and that’s where the romance fits in.  It’s not just important that the right person is punished for the crime, it’s extremely important that the right people end up together.  Just as the various murders have been about the catastrophic absence of love, the romance is about the restoration of love.  We’ve seen what happens, in the fate of James Lessiter and others, when human relationships go wrong, but we now need to see the counter-balance of human relationships going well and flourishing, and the restoring of community and meaning that goes along with it.  The love that is now possible between the survivors suffuses everything in a moment with meaning, even the most mundane of pastimes.

Surely this is another similarity between Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie – they are both as concerned as Jane Austen that their women end up with the right man!  But crucially this is more than counter-balanced by the role of the heroine spinster who enables all this to come about with an almost God-like role in exposing sin, bringing about right judgment and justice, and the restoration of right relationship.  Miss Silver may have only come to stay for a while, but in that space of time she helps put right what is wrong and leaves everything the better for her presence, however temporary.  Her knitting (that often is completed at the end of a case) is not just a pastime for a ‘silly old woman’, a mistake made at their peril by biased observers.  Miss Silver, like Miss Marple, is more like one of the Fates of mythology, the goddesses in the form of three elderly women who spin, measure, and then cut the thread of human life.

Even if the characters don’t realise it – and they usually don’t until it is too late – their fates are in her hands.

[For the latest news of Jeanette Sears’ books, please see the WELCOME page of this website, or go straight to her Amazon page]


[1] Eg. Carol Westron’s blog ‘Miss Marple and Miss Silver – a comparison’ (13 Oct 2014) at  She also has a great little scenario imagining the two ladies meeting in a teashop.

[2]  Agatha Christie, The Tuesday Night Club (1927).

[3]  Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask, 1928.  I refer to this book in my previous blogpost ‘Masks and Murder’.

[4]  Patricia Wentworth, Miss Silver Comes to Stay, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1951, p50f.

[5}  ibid., p107.

[6]  ibid., p104f.


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A Golden Age for Masks?

Back in 2015 when I began planning my contemporary crime novel Night and Mr Knightley, I considered using a masked ball as the setting for a murder.  I was using Jane Austen’s Emma as the basis for the plot and so a regency ball seemed appropriate and the use of masks ideal for the schemes of a murderer. 

New novel: Night and Mr Knightley

But a masked ball?  Yes, it had been used extensively in Golden Age Detective fiction (GAD), but that in itself made it seem rather passé.  Would people now think that the wearing of masks could be at all believable?

The story itself was to take place in the autumn of 2016.

But then, at that precise moment, the world seemed to go a bit mad – in masks!  There were huge marches of protesters wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks in the November of that year – the Million Mask March.

Guy Fawkes Mask

There were gangs of clowns wearing make-up like a mask attacking people (I kid you not) especially in my home city of Nottingham where my stories are set.  The combo of Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night had a lot to answer for!

Also there were protests in Europe about whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public with only their eyes showing in case they were concealing explosive packages and couldn’t be identified. 

And on a more local level, I had planned on referring to one of our theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, as part of the story – they then staged Thomas Middleton’s ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’ in November 2016, which I soon discovered was a jacobean gore-fest featuring mass murder at a masked ball !  It couldn’t have been more appropriate so I decided to feature it as a major theme in my story.

But becoming a Carer for my dear Mum in the last three years has meant something of a delay in my speed of book production.  The publication of Night and Mr Knightley would have to be delayed to 2020.  Would the subject of the wearing of masks be considered passé by then?  Er, well…

There are far too many GAD stories featuring masks and masked balls for me to mention them all.  But here is a taste of a few of them that I either read for research or refer to directly in my novel, hopefully without any spoilers.

The Masks Themselves

Masks come in many colours and materials.  I began with reading Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask of 1928 which features a full-face mask of grey rubber.   A bank robber in John Dickson Carr’s Colonel March story Hot Money (made for TV in 1952) also wears a full-cover rubber face mask as a robbery and a murder are committed.  In White Face by Edgar Wallace (1931) the villain wears a white cloth cut with two eye holes. 

Then more colourfully there was Behind the Green Mask by Ralph Trevor (1940), Greenmask by J Jefferson Farjeon (1944),

and the classic short story The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842).

Frequently, though, the masks were simple black eye masks such as that worn by E W Hornung’s Raffles (1901)

or The Count of Monte Christo by Dumas (1844)

or Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders (1928). 

(I originally had a black eye mask featured on the cover of my book but the designer turned it a striking pink – which I rather like!)


Just this list shows that masks were useful for individuals committing crime, sometimes skulking on their own down dark streets, but often in plain sight in public because everyone was at a party and disguised by masks as well.

JJ Connington’s detective Sir Clinton Driffield is annoyed in Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927) that his friends have chosen fancy dress for their large country house party –  masks make it too easy for a criminal:

“ ‘I’m not altogether easy in my mind over this masked ball of Joan’s.  Speaking as a Chief Constable responsible for the good behaviour of the district, Cecil, it seems to me that you are running some risks over it.  A dance is all very well.  You know all your guests by headmark [sic] and no one can get in on false pretences.  But once you start masks, it’s a different state of affairs altogether.’ “

So true.

This was certainly the case in Agatha Christie’s The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923).

But  Dorothy L Sayers of course reverses this in her Murder Must Advertise (1933), since disguising himself as a harlequin with a mask enables the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey to deceive and mislead the criminals. 

There is also her short story The Queen’s Square (1932) featuring a fancy dress ball (Lord Peter is dressed as the Jack of Diamonds) but I couldn’t see any references to masks even though one would have expected them to feature.  Sayers also refers to the American pulp fiction Black Mask magazine “that monthly collection of mystery and sensational fiction”, featuring it as a clue (or an anti-clue?) in Unnatural Death (1927) which Inspector Parker refers to disparagingly as “light reading for the masses”.

When looking at the subject of masks online I came across a lot of items on what has been labelled ‘The Party of the Century’.  This was Truman Capote’s bash in New York in 1966, ostensibly in honour of the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham, and Everyone who was Anyone was there.  It took the form of a black-and-white masked ball.

 I used this in my novel as Prisha Chatterjee’s inspiration for the masked ball that she is helping to arrange for the fictional Nottingham Knights Entertainment Company.  The dresses of 1966, for example Mia Farrow’s, look almost regency, though somewhat shorter!

Edgar Allan Poe’s party in The Masque of the Red Death, however, is predictably more scary and apparently now has something of a cult following in America at Halloween.  It concerns a wealthy Prince who invites all his friends to his castle to join him at a non-stop lock-down party so they can avoid a plague that is ravaging the land.  The plague is called the Red Death.  It is a masquerade with music, food and entertainment, whilst the poor are left outside the castle walls to suffer (sounding familiar?).  Then a mysterious and ominous figure all in red, including a red mask, appears at the party uninvited…  I’ll leave you to guess the rest.  Just like the classic image of the executioner in a black hood to hide his face, masks can be worn to protect the identity of those who are a form of Nemesis, who implement appropriate revenge for wrongdoers and enemies.


In GAD masks were frequently worn around the eyes, not the mouth.  But usually if someone was in a mask it meant they were about to rob you at the very least but quite possibly kill you.  Here and now in January 2021 someone with a mask around their mouth and nose is more frequently trying to save your life.

As part of this general trend, there have been many literary-themed fabric masks produced, several featuring Jane Austen or quotes from her work. The ‘social distancing’ of regency life has also meant lots of photoshop opportunities utilising her stories.

And representations of Jane herself have not escaped the mask message.

Statue of Jane Austen with mask

In 2016 masks were being worn by those protesting the curtailing of our freedom.  This can also be true now, but more often the opposite is the case – people  refusing to wear masks because they feel it curtails their freedom.  On the news it has just been reported that a third of police in the UK have had people without masks spitting at them or coughing on them, now a potentially murderous act.  There have been ‘COVID-deniers’ without masks invading hospitals and endangering the staff and patients’ lives.

So regardless of the time gap between now and the Golden Age of crime fiction, all this shows that masks are still a matter of life and death, although our perception of how they function has been turned upside down.

But I must leave you now.  A man in a black mask has just come to my door – delivering something nice from Amazon.

[For more on Night and Mr Knightley by Jeanette Sears, see the WELCOME page or go straight to Amazon Kindle]