"You will consider your verdict."- Mr. Justice Springfellow (Raymond Postgate's Verdict of Twelve, 1940)
As you can probably deduce from my 2013 review of The Benevent Treasure (1956), I was not overly impressed with Patricia Wentworth and have ignored her work ever since, but Rupert Heath from Dean Street Press ever so kindly provided me with a review copy of one of her standalone novels – which sounded more appealing than any of her Miss Silver stories.
Silence in Court (1945) is the book in question and this brand new edition is prefaced by our very own genre-historian, Curt Evans, whose brief introduction is packed with potential material for a biography about Wentworth's family.
Wentworth was born to an Angelo-Indian military family during the heyday of the British Raj. Both her father and uncle had distinguished careers in the army, but perhaps the most interesting snippets of her family history concerned the lives of one of her stepsons and a younger brother during World War I and II.
One of her stepsons, George Dillon, was mining in Colorado when war was declared and he "worked his passage from Galveston, Texas to Bristol, England as a shipboard muleteer" and died at the Somme in 1916 – when he was only 29. Her younger brother, Hugh Elles, rose to the rank of brigadier-general in the Great War and "he was tasked with leading the defense of southwestern England" during the Second World War, which would have been an important role if the Battle of Britain had been fought on land instead of in the air.
So I thought that was a genuinely interesting part of Wentworth's family life, but how did the book itself measure up to my previous experience? Well, it was without a question better than The Benevent Treasure.
The protagonist of Silence in Court is a young woman, named Carey Silence, who suffered from shock when the train she was traveling in was machine-gunned from the air by the Nazis. She was told to take several months of rest, but her employer had been killed in the attack and was effectively out of a job, which in her case meant she had "no more than three pounds to cover the three months during which she had been ordered not to work." Fortuitously, a cousin and childhood friend of Carey's late grandmother, a Mrs. Honoria Maquisten, saw her name in the papers and offered the penniless girl a room in her London home.
Carey is not the only relative who lives under Honoria's roof: she has two live-in nieces, Nora Hull and Honor King, and two nephews, but only Dennis Harland, a wounded RAF pilot, has a room there – a second nephew, Robert Maquisten, is merely a regular visitor to the place. Finally, there's a starchy nurse, called Magda Brayle, and Honoria's fiercely loyal maid, named Ellen.
What binds this household together, referred to by one of the characters as "the golden link," is Honoria's petulant game of musical chairs with the prospective inheritors of her small fortune.
Honoria summons about twice a month her solicitor, Mr. Aylwin, to do "a little juggling with her will," which she does for no other reason than her own amusement, but everyone is well aware that "some day the music will stop" and "somebody won't have anything to sit down on." Carey soon becomes a favorite in this game of Honoria and is written into her will. However, the situation changes as quickly as predicted, but this time there seems to have been a tangible reason for her change of mind, which came in the form of a hand delivered letter – a letter that made her bristle with anger. Only problem is that her solicitor is abroad and her will is locked away in his safe. So she summoned his managing clerk and "dictated provisions for bequests dividing her property into four," but her comes the kicker, there were "blanks left for the insertion of the names of the legatees." Someone was about to be disinherited, but they did not know who until the document was officially signed and witnessed.
Honoria gave a cryptic hint when "she quoted a proverb about going up with a rocket and coming down with a stick," but somebody refused to allow her to affix her signature to yet another will and tempered with her sleeping draught – making sure "she had about three times the number of tablets she ought to have taken." The person the police holds responsible for this is Carey.
The introduction of the characters, setting up Honoria's death and a short investigation by a rather annoying police-inspector gobbles up the first half of the book, which makes for a very character-driven detective story. Second half finds Carey in court and this portion of the book flip-flops between a good, well-written courtroom drama and a dry, repetitive courtroom procedure that kept going over the same events. Or wanted to assert how angry Honoria actually was upon receiving the letter.
However, the only real problem and weakness of this half of the story is the surprise witness, who popped-up like a jack-in-the-box, which was needed to free Carey and identify the guilty party. I thought that was blemish on the plot and overall story.
Otherwise, Silence in Court was a better story than I expected and feel compelled now to take a third shot at Wentworth. So recommendations are more than welcome.