Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

Who came first: Miss Silver or Miss Marple?

Grey Mask, originally published in 1928, was republished 90 years later
Grey Mask, originally published in 1928,
was republished 90 years later
Patricia Wentworth’s first Miss Silver Mystery, Grey Mask, published in 1928, introduces an unassuming little old lady, who is continually knitting baby garments, but is actually a shrewd private detective with a brilliant mind.

Many people have assumed over the years that Miss Silver was inspired by Agatha Christie’s much-loved Miss Marple, but actually it could have been the other way round. The first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, was not published until 1930, although the endearing character had made her first appearance in a short story published in The Royal Magazine in December 1927.

Whoever came first, the two old ladies might appear to be similar characters, but there are many differences between them. Miss Marple lives in a cottage in a sleepy village but is more worldly wise than she might appear. She has developed  a deep knowledge of human nature and can always refer to a useful village parallel when investigating a case, possessing the ability to pick out a villain because he reminds her of a young man that she once knew who stole from his employer, or a naughty boy who often played tricks on his teachers.

Miss Silver, however, is the real deal, as she walks the mean streets of London and takes on cases in a professional way, pitting her wits against major crime bosses.

In Grey Mask there is little explanation about who Miss Silver is, or why she has set herself up as a private investigator in London in the 1920s, but she appears to be well known in upper class circles and the hero of the story is sent to consult her on the recommendation of a friend.

Charles Moray, an explorer, has returned home after four years abroad, to find  his house unlocked, with a light burning in one of its abandoned rooms. He finds somewhere to hide and eavesdrops on what is going on in the room. A criminal gang are using his house to plot a vicious crime. Furthermore, he recognises the voice of one of the conspirators. It belongs to the woman who jilted him on the eve of his wedding four years earlier.

Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver novels
Patricia Wentworth wrote
32 Miss Silver novels
He cannot go to the police because he does not want his former fiancée to get into trouble, but he has to find a way to prevent the gang from committing the crime they are planning and somehow extricate the woman he used to love from the mess she seems to be in.

His friend urges him to consult Miss Silver and so Charles goes to her office. His first impression of the well-respected private detective is that she is ‘a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head’. He finds that appearances can be deceptive, however, and that Miss Silver is not afraid to tackle a criminal gang who are prepared to resort to violence, kidnapping and shooting people.

Patricia Wentworth was the pen name of Dora Amy Elles, who was born in India, where her father was stationed with the British Army, in 1877. She was sent to England to be educated, but returned to India and married George Dillon in 1906. He had three children from a previous marriage and they had one child together. After his death she moved back to England with the children.

In 1920 she married again, to George Turnbull, and settled in Surrey. She had begun writing while in India and in 1910 had won the Melrose Prize for her first published novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, which was set during the French Revolution.

Under the pen name of Patricia Wentworth, she wrote 32 crime novels featuring Miss Silver, beginning with Grey Mask in 1928 and ending with Girl in the Cellar in 1961, the year of her death. Miss Silver develops as a character during the series and works closely with Scotland Yard. The reader will eventually discover she is a retired governess with a passion for Tennyson as well as for knitting.

Patricia Wentworth also wrote poetry and more than 30 other novels throughout her career.

I would recommend reading Grey Mask, which was republished by Hodder and Stoughton in 2018 and is available again in some public libraries. It is a well-written story told from multi viewpoints and, although it is typical of the sensational crime fiction of its time, such as Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels and Margery Allingham’s Mr Campion books, it has an intriguing mystery at its heart, which is not revealed until the end.

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