Stuff of the Dead

"Strange things move beneath the surface of the years."
 - Miss Silver
The names of Patricia Wentworth, the pseudonym of Indian born Doris Turnbull, and her elderly ex-governess turned professional sleuth, Miss Silver, have been sifting in-and out of my peripheral vision for years, but never took the plunge – because the constant comparisons with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple were very off putting. What can I say? I'm just not a fan of the Miss Marple series.

"Wait a moment before going in there, hun..."
Somehow, somewhere, I acquired a 2006 reissue by Hodder and Stoughton of The Benevent Treasure (1956) and I'm fairly sure it wasn't on account of the comely illustration on the front cover. The synopsis on the back, on the other hand, painted a different picture that explained how it might have ended up on the pile and made me finally decide to give Wentworth-Silver tandem a shot.

The Benevent Treasure was published in the twilight years of Wentworth's writing career and the story is driven by undercurrents from the Victorian era, but the plot opens with a prologue – showing a then 15-year-old Candida Sayle clutching for her life to a narrow ledge of an overseas cliff. A young man named Stephen Eversley saves her, but they don't meet again until the following five years have come and gone. An aunt brought up Candida and in turn, she took care of her until she passed away – leaving her all alone until a letter arrives.

Candida's great-aunt, Olivia Benevent, has kept eyes and ears on the estranged side of the family and, as her last surviving relative, invited to spend some time at the ancestral family home – a Victorian monstrosity known as Underhill. The starched Olivia is the typical, domineering shrew who keeps her sister, great-aunt Cara, under the thumb, and generally, acts very, very patrician. There's the adopted secretary, Derek Burdon, whom they hope to marry off to Candido and the servants, Joseph and Anne. Stephen Eversley turns up to do some work on the house. Over this an old-fashioned cloak of family secrecy is thrown, which gives raise to motives for mutual suspicions and perhaps even murder. In the background lingers the legend surrounding the Benevent Treasure, which was smuggled into the country by one of their ancestors, after defecting from Italy, and hidden somewhere on the premise of Underhill. There's even a rhyme that turns up:
"Touch not nor try,
Sell not nor buy,
Give not nor take,
For dear life’s sake." 
The multitude of plot-threads seemed more than sufficient to justify its 350+ pages, at merely a quarter into the book, but when Miss Silver arrives on the scene, knitting in the compartment of train, a Mr. Puncheon asks her if she's in the consulting detective he has heard about. Miss Silver's reputation has preceded her and Mr. Puncheon wants her help in finding out if his stepson, Alan Thompson, former secretary of the Benevents, stole money and jewelry from his employer – before dropping off the map. Everyone, including Mr. Puncheon himself, assumed he was guilty and it killed his mother. Remorseful, Mr. Puncheon now wants to know if there's a chance to clear Alan's name.   

"Super cereal literature!" - Al Gore
Here is where the story begins to bog down and fall apart. The "Had-I-But-Known" atmosphere that permeated through out the beginning of the story disintegrated and the interaction between the characters began to drag down the flow of the narrative. Eventually, there's a murder clumsily disguised as an accident, when someone is found sprawled at the foot of the staircase, but once you reached the ending you realize you could have just skipped there instead of wading to through all that muck

The solution obviously owed some debt to Conan Doyle's "The Musgrave Ritual," collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893) and G.K. Chesterton's "The Curse of the Golden Cross," from The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), but everything seemed tired and a bit on the confusing side of my consciousness – even a last ditch effort at something original with a last-minute murder through an unusual method of poisoning. Well, unusual and original, maybe it would've been in the era that Wentworth attempted to emulate. And that includes a nightly/ghostly intruder in Candida's bedroom and secret passageways.  

After, and it must be said, good opening, I was hoping it would drag itself out the slum and pick up again towards the ending, because the tedious and repetitive family business recalled the slumming drag you had endure in Rupert Penny's Sealed Room Murder (1941) – before rewarding its readers with a short detective story in the final quarter of the book. That didn't happen. Instead, it treaded dangerously close to George Bellairs' The Cursing Stones Murder (1954).

So, no, I did not like it and had I but known that my curiosity for the Benevent treasure would result in the lost of several precious hours, I would never have given that book a second glance!    
To end the review on a positive note (and a spot deification), but mysteries like The Benevent Treasure and The Cursing Stones Murder makes you appreciate later-period John Dickson Carr. The recently reviewed The Cavalier's Cup (1953), published under the Carter Dickson byline, which was deemed as indefensible (because it's mediocre by Carr's own standard), blows those two away and one of them was written in the middle of the authors career! Because that's how great he was. Sorry. That's all I had left in the tank for this review. Writing reviews of books you ended up disliking can be a strain on your creativity. 


  1. I think an interesting study could be made of what periods professional authors turn out their best work over the course of their careers. The passage of time tells us which portions of their work remain viable. I think such a study would shed some light on the nature of the creative process.

    Some authors produce their best work at the start of their careers, and thereafter simply repeat the pattern for the rest of their lives, as though they have only one story to tell.

    Some authors have apprentice periods of lesser or greater lengths before they produce their best work.

    Some authors have to wait until they find their ideal subject matter or hero before they can do their best work.

    If we look at Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance, I have always thought that his best book was his very first novel, and then the two immediate Carter sequels. As far as Tarzan goes, I thought the best ones after the first were books further down the line like Tarzan the Untamed, as though it took a while for his technique to evolve to best employ the character.

    As far as Patricia Wentworth goes, her career went from 1923 to 1961, the year she died. Miss Silver's first novel appearance was in 1928, with the last one appearing in 1961, for a total of 33 novels, according to my reference book. The Benevolent Treasure first appeared in 1954, toward the end of her career.

    I think it is a pretty rare author who can keep the full blaze of creativity alight decade after decade. I think there is a general consensus that the last two volumes of the stories about even the mighty Sherlock Holmes are not up to the standard of the earlier volumes.

    Maybe Patricia Wentworth shows to better advantage in earlier volumes (not that I would care to make the experiment myself).

    1. There's always the inevitable wear and tear in the work of prolific (mystery) writers, but in some the decline is more discernable than in others.

      You wouldn't immediately notice the wear and tear in Rex Stout or Appie Baantjer, because the quality of writing and/or characterization has been constant throughout the series – until you compare the caliber of the earlier plots with the latter ones. I've no idea if Wentworth from the 1920-or 30s will be any better, but that's something to discover in the far, far away future.

      And according to my H&S reprint, The Bevenent Treasure appeared for the first time in 1956. Is the date in my reprint wrong?

    2. According to Hubin's Crime Fiction II, there were two editions of the book. Lippincott published it in 1954, and then Hodder published it in 1956. These are also the dates given in John M. Reilly's Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers. Lippincott was an American publishing firm and Hodder & Stoughton is a British publishing firm. The 1956 date you cite appears to be the copyright date for the British edition. Since your reprint was from the Hodder and Stoughton edition, it would make sense for the copyright date in your edition to be the later one. Patricia Wentworth appears to me to have been a British subject, but for some reason, when I look down the list of her published books, the first edition in most instances after 1945 appears to have been the American Lippincott edition. The British edition would then appear one or two years or even three years later. I have no interest in this author because old lady detectives who knit bore me so I don't know why the publishing schedule appears to me to have been set up that way. Maybe she had a bigger fan base in America than in Britain.

    3. That clears that up and thanks for the additional information. Much appreciated!

  2. Patricia Wentworth is a new author for me and her sleuth, Miss Silver, certainly reminds me of Miss Marple who, for some reason, is not very popular among readers of detective fiction who prefer Poirot to the sweet old lady. Thanks for bringing this author to my notice.

    1. My problem with Miss Marple has more to do with her books than with the character herself, because there aren't any books in the series I would consider to be "Great Detective" novels.

      The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side came close, but shot itself in the foot with a couple of additional, and completely unnecessary, killings that dulled the impact of the first murder – which was vintage Christie! The only, slightly negative side-effect of only that first murder would've been that the readers would probably sympathize with the murderer, but it would'e also been a more solid mystery novel.

    2. I love Miss Silver. See my comment below.

  3. I know we all have different tastes in mysteries, but the Miss Silver series is one of my favorites. That said, The Benevent Treasure is the absolutely the worst of her books!! I read it this summer and was horrified! I highly recommend Out of the Past, Miss Silver Comes to Stay, and Miss Silver Deals With Death.

    1. I'm glad to hear from a Wentworth fan that this was not par for the normal course and I'll keep the titles you mentioned in mind for when I decide to give her another shot.