Classic Crime – Patricia Wentworth

The crime writer Patricia Wentwoth was recommended to me by my cousin Anwen who is a bit of a classic crime connoisseur. I’d heard of the writer but never read any of her books. I managed to pick up cheaply from  Abe Books two titles from Wentworth’s later years; The Watersplash written in 1952 and the 1955 Poison in the Pen.

Both books feature Miss Maud Silver, a former governess turned private detective. She is very much in the Miss Marple mode; she knits, listens to village gossip and is in cahoots with the national if not local police. Waterplash is set in the village of Greenings where bodies keep turning up in the ‘watersplash’ (a shallow stream according to the OED – I had to look it up). It’s a classic tale from the period involving blackmail, a missing will and a love affair that seems destined never to come to fruition.

Poison of the Pen was the more satisfying of the two books. This time the setting is Tilling Green, a different village, same characteristics – Anglican church which is the centre of village life, a hard-up lord of the manor, old ladies with nothing to do all day than gossip. This latter feature is a bit of a cliché but interestingly Wentworth makes reference in the book to the fact that there were two million more women than men in 1950s Britain, a fact that I was unaware of. Presumably this was the after effects of the First World War which took place forty years earlier.

I think in Poison in the Pen the character of Miss Silver came across better. She is a more down-at-heel Miss Marple, wearing her ‘second-best’ hat and old winter coat. The book is very well written with wonderful descriptions of the village characters, particularly the lower class lady of the Manor, wearing ‘imitation tartan in which the predominant colours were scarlet, yellow and green. Perhaps it was all these colours that gave her a curiously hard look.’ I don’t remember Agatha Christie ever being quite so bitchy.

I will definitely be reading more Patricia Wentworth. She is that satisfying mix of cosy village with sharp writing. Definitely a find.

Penguin Classic Crime: Elspeth Huxley

I recently started to collect the green penguin crime paperbacks. Introduced by Allen Lane in 1935, the Penguin main series was intended to open up book buying (and reading) to the general public. They were first sold in Woolworths for 6d and the crime books in the series were colour coded green. Once upon a time you could pick up early penguin crime books cheaply but now the going rate seems to be about £4 for a standard edition, and up to around £40 for the early editions. My collection is in its early stages as you can see by my picture below as I am only buying them as quickly as I can read them. I hope one day to have a row of books similar to Karyn’s who writes the excellent  A Penguin a Week blog although my bookshelves would be a sea of green.

I picked up recently picked up Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari  – number 1129 in the series. Huxley was brought up in colonial Kenya and the majority of her early books were crime novels set in Africa. Murder on Safari features Vachell, the Canadian superintendent of Chania CID who is sent to a luxury hunting camp to investigate the disappearance of some jewels. When the victim of the theft is killed, attention focuses on each member of the hunting party. As a period crime novel, the book isn’t bad. There is a limited pool of suspects who could have committed the crime and the reader is presented with a possible motive for each suspect.  The characters are well drawn and sufficiently interesting for you to care who committed the crime. The descriptions of the Kenyan bush is interesting too and I liked how the luxury that existed within these camps – guests swilling champagne in their silk pajamas – contrasts with the perilous landscape outside.

However, I would say that the book has dated in terms of its vocabulary. There are broad generalisations made about the physiognomy of native Africans that is unacceptable today. Huxley does attempt to include some of the Africans into the plot as witnesses to the action but these scenes are not well written. Perhaps it is unfair to highlight stereotypical descriptions of indigenous people, as Huxley is by no means the only writer guilty of this. I have just finished listening to a talking book of Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad where the descriptions of the Arab locals is equally poor. But if we are going to try to resurrect some of the less well read authors of the period for the modern reader, it is worth pointing out that some writing has just simply dated.

Murder on Safari is now out of print but easily available second-hand.