"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.