The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth

The Clock Strikes Twelve ebook by Patricia WentworthJames Paradine clearly hasn’t read many detective stories or he would know better. Knowing that someone in his family, gathered in his house on New Year’s Eve, has stolen some important blueprints, he announces in the middle of dinner that a) he knows that someone has a guilty secret and b) he’ll be waiting in his study – his isolated study – for that person to come and own up. They have until midnight.

Needless to say, a) there is promptly a parade of people with guilty consciences up to the study and b) come midnight, James Paradine has plummeted out of his window onto the stones below. And it seems he had some help…

Enter Miss Silver – a retired governess with a talent for detection. And as ever with harmless little old ladies, everyone tells her their innermost secrets. But she’s not just another Miss Marple

Patricia Wentworth wrote over thirty mysteries featuring Miss Maud Silver but this is my first encounter with her. It’s another writer/sleuth combination that I was vaguely aware of but never got round to investigating. But with Open Road Media making the entire back catalogue available as ebooks, it seemed an ideal opportunity to take a look at one of them.

Let’s take the central character first of all. As I said, she’s not exactly Miss Marple. Miss Marple sits in the corner while people investigate around her. Miss Silver, it seems, based only on her reputation, inserts herself directly into a police investigation. On a request from one of the suspects, she strolls along and before you can say “deeply unlikely”, she’s being treated as if she’s one of the team of detectives. I suppose you could make a good case that Poirot often does the same thing, but usually he’s brought in by the police. Deeply unlikely events abound in many a whodunit, but for some reason this seemed a little jarring to me. It’s probably down to expectations – not having encountered Miss Silver before, this caught me a little off-guard. Her introductory scene, though, balancing hearing about the case with choosing the right wool to knit a jacket for a child, is rather lovely. Once the case kicks off, though, her distinctiveness seemed to fade somewhat as the plot took precedence.

The characters in the Paradine house are the main plus point of the book. OK, you’ve got to accept the Golden Age tendency for characters in a murder mystery to discuss things obliquely rather than face things directly – the situation regarding the Wrays for example! – but there’s a nice line in slow reveals concerning the various family relations.

Plotwise, it’s not my favourite type of classic mystery. It’s the one where a single crime has been committed in an restricted location with a limited set of suspects, but solving it consists of working out who was where at what time. It’s the sort of mystery where you need a pencil and paper if you want to work it out properly. As you might expect, after Paradine’s announcement, there’s a virtual parade of people with guilty secrets going in and out of his room so if you’re playing along properly, to need to make notes. But it kept me gripped and there’s at least one very good red herring to distract the armchair sleuth. And what really helps is that I can see that this is an example of that sort of mystery done well, as directly after this, I read a novel with a similar structure that showed how not to do it. Review coming soon…

So, an interesting introduction to Miss Silver, not perfect, but certainly good enough to bring me back to the character at a later date. Worth a look.

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11 comments

  1. I have not read any of these either but it sounds better than I thought, especially as too I tend to not enjoy the kind of books where you need pen and pencil to keep track of movements and alibis – it even stopped me enjoying CARDS ON THE TABLE, one of Christie’s best books of the 1930s for most readers. Hmm, may have to revisit this author – almost read one of heres (ETERNITY RING) last month but put it back and cracked open an Ellery Queen instead!

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  2. I’m not a big fan of Cards On The Table either. There are a few “classics” that I don’t get on with and thinking about it, a number of them are of this ilk – Murder On The Orient Express sort of comes under this category, although it’s stupid for a number of other reasons as well.

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  3. Interesting. I read a Patricia Wentworth once (The Watersplash?) and filed her away with M.C.Beaton and Ngaio Marsh: someone going through the motions of a detective story just to get ink on the page. But maybe she’s worth another go…

    Your summary makes me think of how good the first half of The Crooked Hinge is. Now whenever an author ostentatiously shoves someone into an isolated study, I’m always hoping SOMEONE ELSE is going to die! Once you’ve seen a trope subverted, it’s hard to go back to the original.

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    • Most of the Crooked Hinge is really good – shame about the solution. If Carr had swapped the fake solution with the real solution, I think I’d love that book as much as anyone. Must dig it out and give it another go soon – it’s buried in a moving box at the mo, though…

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  4. I enjoyed your review. I read many Patricia Wentworth books years ago and have wondered what I would think of them. I am looking forward to reading a couple to see if my tastes have changed.

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  5. I am very fond of Miss Silver and have read all books about her more than once. They vary greatly in quality. Some are so tedious that even a person who loves Miss Silver dearly has a lot of trouble getting through them while others can be read with pleasure again and again. I have come to the conclusion that while in most of these novels Miss Silver is akin to Miss Marple and Miss Climpson, there are a few where she seems to be more clearly an actual agent of providence. As in, I suspect that at least at times Wentworth toyed with the idea that Miss Silver was an angel. I quite like that idea though it’s a bit eccentric. Sadly, I can’t point you the title which first made me suspect this, since it’s been a while since I read them all through again. I will report back when I come across it again, however.

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