Patricia Wentworth: ‘Grey Mask’

Patricia Wentworth: ‘Grey Mask’

‘Grey Mask’ (1928) is the first of Patricia Wentworth’s novels to feature Miss Maud Silver as the detective.  There were to be 31 more.  I have written about Wentworth (the pseudonym for Dora Amy Elles, 1878-1961) in another blog and the fact that her ‘spinster sleuth’ creation Miss Silver predates that of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in novel form [1].  I first read Wentworth’s ‘Grey Mask’ because of the title and my interest in anything to do with masks when I was researching my own novel ‘Night and Mr Knightley’ back in 2016 which features a masked ball.  I particularly wanted to avoid reproducing any plot device concerning masks from the Golden Age of Crime Fiction unintentionally.   I also wanted to revisit the first appearance of Miss Silver.

Had I been impressed with her at our first encounter?  I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t particularly, but having now read other outings of hers I am interested to go back and relive that first meeting and see if she makes more of an impression this time.

But perhaps, since the essence of these ‘old lady’ detectives is their very unimpressiveness at first sight, then it’s hardly surprising that Miss Silver didn’t exactly blow me away in this first book.  The fact that now, on better acquaintance, I could read her cases all day is testament to Wentworth’s skill in developing her sleuth and her own evolution as a writer over the years.

‘Grey Mask’: the Story

Charles Moray has been away from his ancestral home for four years following a break up with his fiancée Margaret Langton.  On his return he is amazed to find the door of his home unlocked and a strange meeting going on in one of the rooms.  He is able to observe this from a childhood hiding place.  And what he sees terrifies him.  Not only is there a gang who are only known only by numbers but one of them is his former fiancée!  They are planning a kidnap and the story will revolve around a missing marriage certificate and an inheritance.  And the main leader wears a scary grey rubber mask with square holes cut for the eyes.

But Charles can’t risk calling in the police with his former love involved, so he very much needs a private alternative.  And it doesn’t get more private and alternative than Miss Maud Silver.

Miss Silver Introduced

From the word go, Miss Silver faces sexist and ageist assumptions that could jeopardise her acquiring any potential job.  It is Charlie’s friend Archie who advises him to get a trained sleuth to track down the criminals who invaded his house and find Margaret.  Charlie expects to be put on to “a good man”.  But Archie recommends:

 “ ‘A sleuthess…. A perfect wonder – has old Sherlock boiled.’

Charles frowned.

 ‘A woman?’

 ‘Well, a sleuthess.  She’s not exactly what you’d call a little bit of fluff, you know.’

 ‘What’s her name?’

 ‘Maud Silver.’

 ‘Mrs or Miss?’…

 ‘Single as a Michaelmas daisy,’ said Archie.”

Charles wonders why bring in a ‘sleuthess’ when there are lots of perfectly good sleuths.  Archie has only met her once (“and she didn’t make my heart beat faster”) but she did succeed in retrieving his cousin’s jewels – “little Maudie got them back.”  His cousin then told all her friends and she resolved their problems too.  So Charlie takes down her address. “If she specialised in getting silly women out of messes, she would just about suit his book.”

It’s hard to imagine a more sexist, ageist and patronising introduction for a major detective!  Charles and Archie seem to judge Miss Silver initially by her sexual attractiveness and availability.  And their opinion of the ‘silly women’ that she has helped is no better.  But then one needs to remember that these are not real men and that a woman is creating them for the page.  Are these attitudes reflecting ones that Wentworth herself had encountered?  Or, ironically, is Wentworth being sexist and patronising about men?!

A First Look at Miss Silver

We have to wait till Chapter 11 to actually meet Miss Silver.  Charles is now in her waiting room and can hear female voices coming from her office.  Charles being a charlie, he assumes they must be “discussing millinery”!  When he finally enters her office he is struck by its simplicity.  There is a large desk with piles of exercise books, two chairs, one of which is occupied by Miss Silver.

This is the first proper description of her:

“She was a little person of no features, no complexion, and a great deal of mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head.  She inclined her head slightly, but did not offer to shake hands.”

Her voice is quiet and hesitating and “without tone”.  She notes down his details in a brown copy-book.  Even though what Wentworth describes could be the stereotypical governess or school teacher or librarian, we are not told anything in this book about her former career.  But when she smiles!  “The smile had the most extraordinary effect upon her face; it was just as if an expressionless mask had been lifted and a friendly, pleasant face had looked out from behind it.”

So it not just the ‘baddie’ who wears a mask.  Ladies like Miss Silver have also learned the usefulness of ‘masks’, to hide themselves behind a neutral appearance, as those who view them without prior knowledge cannot be trusted to treat them without prejudice.

She is ruthless about the need for trust.  She needs Charles to tell her everything.  She insists: “Trust me in all, or not at all” is my motto.  Tennyson is out of fashion, but I admire him very much, and that is my motto”.  Charles concludes to himself “What a Victorian little person!” and notices that she has a half-knitted stocking on her lap.  She now begins to knit, “holding the needles in the German way”, and somehow Charles finds himself telling her everything.

His next encounter with Miss Silver takes him by surprise too.  He is leaving a cinema and suddenly an old lady in a black cloak with an old-fashioned bonnet and umbrella touches him on the arm.  He finds himself looking into Miss Silver’s “nondescript eyes” as she points out the man he hired her to trace.

Apparently Miss Silver has already come across the work of Grey Mask in small ways in the last 5 or 6 years – “one man behind a number of co-ordinated criminal enterprises.”  He works by blackmail, demanding service rather than money.  Did he have some hold over Margaret that made her jilt Charles?

Rescuing Margaret will involve Miss Silver… not exactly braking and entering a building but being part of a similar enterprise.  She enlists the dubious help of Archie and turns up at the end in a “drab raincoat and old-fashioned turban toque”, and armed with her “old-fashioned reticule” in which to secrete clues.  Even with the help of a young man it is she who notices the bullet hole in the wall with her “small grey eyes”.

She may cough before being assertive but any nerves or reticence don’t stop her dissing the intelligence of men in favour of that of women: “Miss Langton must be a highly intelligent person, even for a woman.”  Not in spite of being a woman, note, which Archie and Charlie might have been tempted to say (egged on by Wentworth, of course!)

Conclusion

The criminal is not the only one wearing a grey mask in this story.

Maud’s ‘greyness’ is like her very own grey mask which she has developed over the years.  It enables her to walk unseen, to detect and observe in plain sight with no one noticing that their nemesis is upon them, that a brilliant deductive mind lies behind the bland grey eyes, or that a blazing leonine courage lurks beneath the mousey exterior.

Miss Silver’s ‘Victorian-ness’ is also part of her disguise but also allows the author to draw on the strong moral code of the previous century that would have been recognised immediately by her readers.  Agatha Christie does the same thing in her first short story about Miss Marple [2].  Just as King Arthur is supposed to return and rescue England in its hour of greatest need, so these dear ‘victorian’ spinster ladies are back to rescue the lost post-First World War generation from its moral decay and murderous corruption.

St Paul said to his  emissary Timothy: “Let no one despise you because you are young.”  Perhaps he would have said to Miss Silver: “Let no one despise you because you’re getting on a bit!”

And anyway, Miss Silver, you’ve got another 31 adventures coming up!

To see more of Jeanette Sears’ latest novel, go to:

NOTES

[1]   My blog entitled ‘Patricia Wentworth: ‘Miss Silver Comes to Stay’.

[2]  Agatha Christie’s short story ‘The Tuesday Club’ (1927).