‘The Key’ was a pleasant surprise. The writing was so much better than in ‘The Case Is Closed’ which is the only other Wentworth/Miss Silver book I’ve read. It seems that seven years at a novel a year made a great impact.
‘The Key’ has a fairly solid plot which manages, in a low-key very-easy-to-believe way to combine small village intrigue with a murder made to look like a suicide and a Nazi plot to prevent the British government from getting its hands on a new weapon that has been developed by a Jewish scientist who fled Germany after losing his family. There’s a clever little murder mystery and quite a sweet romance, a cast of well-drawn village folk and lots of plausible suspects.
World War II has become a popular era for historical fiction, much of which seems to me to be romanticised. I found it very refreshing to read a book that was published in 1944 and which does a wonderful job of depicting life in a small country village at that time. As it’s a contemporary account, there was no need to explain how rationing affected people’s social lives or the presence of evacuee children from London’s East End in a small English village. All that is taken for granted and all the more credible for it. I also liked the matter-of-fact way that the possible presence of German spies is treated. There’s neither hysteria nor melodrama just the acceptance of one more possibility that needs to be taken into account.
I enjoyed Patricia Wentworth’s talent for description. She is able to capture the spirit of a place or a person in very few words.
I loved the initial description of the street in a small country town in the first chapter:
“Of the two roads, one runs as straight as a ruled line, set with pompous examples of Victorian shop architecture. The other comes sidling in on a crooked curve and shows an odd medley of houses, shops, offices, with a church and a filling-station to break the line. Some of the houses were there when the Armada broke. Some of them have put on new pretentious fronts. Some of them are no better than they should be from a cheap builder’s estimate. Taken as a whole, Ramford Street has a certain charm and individuality which the High Street lacks.”
I felt that I’d seen that street. There’s one like in many English towns even today.
The village that most of the action takes place in is so authentic, I feel it could have been set in one of the Somerset villages near me: Newton St Loe or Farrington Gurney. It’s more than a good description of the village of the kind Christie might give, which always seemed to me to be ‘a map to help you solve the puzzle’. This gets the feel of living in a village for generations so that each location is overlaid with memories.
Although this is a Miss Silver Mystery, Miss Silver herself doesn’t show up until halfway through the book. I thought this worked very well. It allowed us to see the village and the first death through the eyes of people who know the place and the man who was killed. By the time Miss Silver arrives, the reader is in the same position as the people who asked for her help: waiting for Miss Silver to make sense of the information and find the truth.
In a book filled with colourful characters, Miss Silver stands out only for her ability to blend into the background and to make people comfortable in telling her things. She strikes me a less judgemental and more independent than Jane Marple. She’s built a pleasant, self-contained life for herself. She’s well regarded by the police. She has no agenda other than arriving at the truth of a matter. She’s an easy person to underestimate.
The romance between two of the young people, one who was close to the man who was killed and one who has been asked to look into the death on behalf of the government was handled with a light touch that worked well, although I did find the man, Garth, to be very patronising.
My favourite character was Garth’s aunt, Miss Sophy. She is a kind, easy-going person who nevertheless is still very aware of what is going on around her and quite intolerant of rudeness. I loved Miss Sophy’s love slap down style. When Miss Doncaster is slagging off Mrs Motram we get this exchange, starting with Miss Sophy:
“And do you know, I like Mrs Mottram. She is always so pleasant.”
Miss Doncaster snorted. “She hasn’t the brain of a hen!”
“Perhaps not – but there are such a lot of clever people, and so few pleasant ones.”
Now that’s a put-down to savour.
This was a gentle, entertaining read. I’ll be back for more Miss Silver later in the year.