Lonesome Road is Patricia Wentworth’s third ‘Miss Silver’ novel, published in 1939. I read most of these in my teens, then never re-read any until I came across this one recently in an Oxfam bookshop. I remembered liking Wentworth’s sleuth almost as much as Miss Marple and found that hasn’t changed.
The plot concerns Miss Rachel Traherne, a rich estate-owner with a strong sense of duty to her late father’s wishes and her extended family. She lives at Whincliff Edge, a large house situated on a cliff-top. It’s used as a second home by assorted relatives who come and go for free hospitality and the hope of hand-outs. A series of malign incidents make Rachel believe that one of her relatives is trying to kill her. Distraught with suspicion and fear, she consults Miss Maud Silver who had helped one of her friends.
At the writing-table sat a little woman in a snuff-coloured dress. She had what appeared to be a great deal of mousy-grey hair done up in a tight bun at the back and arranged in front in one of those extensive curled fringes associated with the late Queen Alexandra, the whole severely controlled by a net. Below the fringe were a set of neat, indeterminate features and a pair of greyish eyes.
In some ways Miss Silver has much in common with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and might be assumed to be inspired by her but actually, Patricia Wentworth got there first. Miss Silver makes her debut in Grey Mask – albeit in a small rôle – published in 1928, two years before The Body In The Library. Their chief similarity is the ‘invisible’ quality of old ladies. Suspects and murderers overlook them, not realising they’re being keenly observed.
Unlike her famous contemporary, Miss Silver is a professional enquiry agent and lives in a flat in London. You get the impression she has a shadowy network of helpers to call upon to check background facts. Most business-like, Miss Silver makes lists of suspects, alibis etc. in her notebook. She has also had a previous career.
‘I think you had better call me a retired governess.’ Most unexpectedly her eyes twinkled. ‘And that need not trouble your conscience, because it is perfectly true. I was in the scholastic profession for twenty years. I disliked it extremely.’
In later novels, Miss Silver has a good working relationship with Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard, who sometimes sends her on a case. She is invariably found knitting a baby’s matinée coat or bootees. Her modus operandi when she’s detecting is to pose as a house-guest. A distressed gentlewoman who appears a harmless old lady, an attentive audience with a fluttery manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. As she remarks to Rachel Traherne:
I had some conversation with all your relatives. I find that the manner in which people behave to someone whom they consider quite unimportant is often highly illuminating.
In Lonesome Road, Miss Silver’s task is to prevent a murder – which makes a change from an early corpse. The pacing and tension is so effective throughout that I didn’t miss the more conventional plot. In a sense this trope is a forerunner of the woman-in-peril psychological thrillers which are currently so popular. Such novels invariably contain some love interest and that’s something I’d forgotten about Patricia Wentworth’s writing. Her murder mysteries contain elements of what we used to call ‘romantic suspense.’
There’s usually a happy-ever-after for the leading lady and often for a young couple who never really made it to the suspect list. Agatha Christie too, sometimes united an attractive young couple along the way. Being an old cynic, I don’t want romance getting in the way of the murder! That apart, I really enjoyed Lonesome Road.
Although out in 1939, there’s no reference in the novel to the gathering war. It’s set in a timeless interlude between the two World Wars and we’re never told which county we’re in. Patricia Wentworth must have had the south coast in mind as there’s a London Road in the area and characters can run up to ‘town’ for dinner. The atmosphere of the locale is very well done, especially near the climax of the novel when place and weather enhance the tension.
The characters are believable, unsympathetic ones being particularly well-drawn. Like most vintage crime fiction, this is worth reading for the social history alone, an interesting snapshot of how the pre-war British middle class lived.
Most of all I liked the vivid sense of fear and menace creeping through the story. Patricia Wentworth evokes a real feeling of danger, hatred and terror, especially in a pivotal scene and the exciting denouement. She was a very good writer and this is a terrific mystery. Miss Silver is interesting and a formidable ally. I’ll certainly be revisiting her again.