Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Patricia Wentworth - The Gazebo (1958)

I had this novel sitting on my shelf for quite a while, having not read any Wentworth and being unsure that the writing would be up to scratch - but once I opened it up, I enjoyed it a lot as a straightforward little whodunnit of the English old school. Wentworth's 'detective' is Miss Maud Silver, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Miss Marple (Marple's first appearance was in 1927 and Silver's in 1928; so I won't draw any conclusions about the coincidence or otherwise of this resemblance).

The story has all the ingredients of which I'm very fond in crime: an English village setting, a strong period atmosphere (contemporary, of course, at the time of writing), a heavy lashing of understated but cutting manners and cultural elitism, and a little old lady who's a lot sharper than she seems. The story begins with the unexpected return of Nicholas Carey, Althea's old beau; Althea's controlling, hypochondriac mother prevented their marriage five years previously, and Nicholas is determined not to let it happen again. At the same time, there are two mysteriously high offers on the house Althea's father left to her, where she lives with her mother... The murder itself doesn't occur until about a third of the way into the book, and I also appreciated the establishment of setting and character in the intervening period.

The writing itself is by no means outstanding, but Wentworth's modest style sits nicely with her modest ambitions and carries us along into her lace-curtain-concealed intrigues. The gender and class politics are, as they tend to be in this type of work, problematic, but certainly not to an extent which caused me personally any irritation or difficulty with the work overall. Characterisation, again, tended to the shallow at times, particularly in regard to the characters' emotional responses to the events of the story, but no-one expects deep psychological characterisation to be a strength of this type of work.

To a certain extent, I'd see this as a sub-Marple work, but nonetheless as a piece of classic English crime escapism I very much enjoyed it, and I'll definitely be reading more of Wentworth's Miss Silver stories.

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