The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

A Miss Silver mystery with a bonus romance for the reader

The action in The Chinese Shawl takes place among guests at a country house
The action in The Chinese Shawl takes place
among guests at a country house
After reading The Chinese Shawl, I was delighted to discover that Patricia Wentworth’s fifth mystery to feature her series detective, Miss Silver, was her best so far. The Chinese Shawl, which was first published in 1943, was less of a thriller, or novel of suspense like her first four Miss Silver stories, and more of a whodunnit.

However, the murder victim was portrayed by the author as such an unpleasant character that until their violent death 120 pages into the book, I was thinking more along the lines of ‘when are they going to do it?’ or, ‘I wish they would just get on with it and do it,’ until the murderer strikes at last.

The novel is set against the backdrop of World War II and features a group of young people, who are all closely connected with each other, attending a weekend house party at an old house called the Priory. Some of the men are enjoying leave, or are convalescing after being wounded, and a tangle of troubled relationships and past liaisons between them and the women add to the tension.

Unusually, for what is essentially a crime novel, there is a romance at the heart of the book and a family feud potentially standing in its way. Although the previous Miss Silver mysteries usually had a couple falling in love among the characters, the romance element in this novel is far more closely tied up with the plot

The Chinese Shawl is the fifth Miss Silver mystery
The Chinese Shawl is the
fifth Miss Silver mystery
Patricia Wentworth, who was born in October 1877, 145 years ago this month, supplies the reader with interesting details about life during World War II, such as the blackout rules, the damage caused by air raids, the plight of evacuees and the strain caused by the war on relationships, making the book still fresh and interesting for new readers in 2022.

Miss Silver has been invited in her capacity as a private detective by an old school friend to stay at the Priory and try to solve a series of thefts that have been happening. The lady detective gets to the bottom of the thefts quickly, but is still staying in the house when the murder takes place.

The detection element mainly consists of the police superintendent, Randal March, listening patiently to Miss Silver’s theories about the case, which are based on her instincts and judgment of character. The reason for his forbearance is that Miss Silver used to be his governess. Miss Silver produces a large quantity of pale pink and pale blue knitted matinee jackets and bootees while she is discussing the case with him throughout the story.

The plot is as intricately constructed as the baby clothes and, right at the centre of it, is the Chinese shawl of the title, a colourful garment worn by one of the main characters.

The murderer is not revealed until the end of the book, after the author has skilfully misdirected the reader during the last few chapters, while playing completely within the rules.

I enjoyed the first four Miss Silver mysteries but thought The Chinese Shawl was even better. I would recommend the novel to detective fiction readers who like a bit of romance on the side and enjoy a well-defined period setting.

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