Invisible Ink: No 112 - Patricia Wentworth

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The Independent Culture

It wasn't realism that made the early female detectives successful; after all, Miss Marple was a twinkly, rosy-cheeked old busybody who based her criminal knowledge solely on gossip overheard in her village.

Somehow, between the prize marrows and pots of chutney she interfered with police procedure enough to catch killers, whereas in the modern world she'd be fitted up for obstructing justice. And Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley was even stranger, a wizened crone who tested the constraints of the murder genre by pushing them to breaking point, with plots that seemed to take in supernatural elements.

So how did the popularity of the more eminently sensible Miss Silver wane until she finally became a specialist taste? Here was a detective rendered invisible by her age and sex, a cosy, dowdy old dear whom everyone ignored, yet like Miss Marple (who came after her) she could provide insights into the cases that the police overlooked.

Patricia Wentworth was born Dora Elles in India in 1878 and was educated in Blackheath, south London. Her first novel started her writing career in a very different direction. The award-winning A Marriage Under The Terror, written in 1910, was set in the French Revolution. Wentworth was drawn as much to romantic fiction as crime, but murder was then the fashion and so she began writing mysteries. She chose the most traditional of all crime genres, the "cosy", and created a retired governess-turned-spinster-sleuth whose appearance was modelled on her own.

Poetry-spouting Miss Silver at least had an explanation as to why she should be meddling in police affairs – she was "known in the circles of society" and was able to insinuate herself into upper-class households, although quite why she wished to do so was never explained.

Wentworth couldn't keep romance out of her stories, so in most of the 32 crime novels featuring Miss Silver, a young couple's love is usually threatened by an inconvenient corpse, perhaps because one of the lovers is being charged with murder. In comes Silver, full of opinions ("A really dreadful young man – quite like one of those spivs you hear about in the papers"), is always spying on people ("I had to go into Sefton's for some buns and saw them with my own eyes!"), or moaning about foreigners ("In Spain the trains don't run on time and the plumbing doesn't work."). Amazingly, quite a few are now back in print.