Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of Golden Age sleuths, they think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey or of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. One Golden Age writer who perhaps doesn’t have the wide recognition of some of the other “Golden Age greats” is Patricia Wentworth. Her Maud Silver series lasted from 1928 to 1961 and plenty of people believe that Miss Silver is deserving of at least as much acclaim as Christie’s Miss Marple. So let’s give Miss Silver some “air time” today and turn the spotlight on her first outing Grey Mask.
Grey Mask begins with the return of Charles Moray to England after a four-year absence. He goes to his family home one night only to find to his shock that it’s being used as a meeting-place for what seems to be a criminal gang led by a man known only as Grey Mask, so-called because he always wears a mask when he’s meeting with his fellow criminals. The criminals don’t know Moray is there and he remains hidden for a short while watching and listening. Apparently they are plotting to get rid of an heiress to get her money. Moray gets an even greater shock when he sees that one of the people who seems mixed up in this group is his former fiancée Margaret Langton, who jilted him and whose rejection is the reason he left England in the first place.
A few nights later Moray has dinner with an old friend Archie Millar, who tells him that Margaret hasn’t married anyone else. Worried that Margaret may be in trouble or worse, that she may be a willing criminal, Moray decides to do a little sleuthing. He doesn’t get very far though and is left with more questions than answers. That’s when Archie Millar recommends that Moray visit Miss Maude Silver. Moray reluctantly agrees to do so. When he does make an appointment with Miss Silver, Moray tells her what he witnessed although he doesn’t mention Margaret Langton’s involvement. Miss Silver agrees to take the case and in her own quiet way she starts investigating. As for Moray, he tracks down Margaret to the shop where she works and the two resume what turns out to be a very awkward, up-and-down relationship.
In the meantime, we get to know the ingenuous and immature Margot Standing, whose very wealthy father Edward has recently been lost at sea and who now stands to inherit a fortune. It then comes out that she may not be eligible to inherit, and her cousin Egbert is also in line for the money. The papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent with regard to his wealth have disappeared, so both young Standings have a claim. When Egbert proposes that the two should marry, Margot refuses and leaves her home. What Margot doesn’t realise is that she is in grave danger because she is the heiress that Grey Mask and his gang have targeted. One wet night, with no-where to go and no idea how to start life on her own, she happens to be walking aimlessly when she meets Margaret Langton who takes pity on her and takes her in. When Margaret realises who her guest is, she faces a terrible dilemma. On one hand, she is mixed up with the criminal gang although not in the obvious way. On the other, she doesn’t want anything to happen to Margot Standing and she does want to resume her relationship with Charles Moray. In the end and with help from Moray, Archie Millar and of course Miss Silver, both Margaret Langton and Margot Standing find ways out of their situations and we find out who Grey Mask is and what the gang’s plot really was.
One of the elements that runs through this novel is the question of identity. We see it most clearly in the person of Grey Mask, who turns out to be one of the other characters in the novel. Identity also comes into play in the person of Margot Standing. The reader knows who she is throughout most of the novel but the other characters don’t know who she is at first. When Margot leaves her home she chooses another name so that her cousin Egbert is less likely to be able to find her. That’s the name she uses when Margaret Langton finds her. Then she chooses yet another name when it becomes clear that she is in real danger. There isn’t honestly a lot of suspense about who Margot Standing is, but it is (at least in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) fun to see how the other characters come to know her real identity.
Another thread running through the novel is the developing relationship between Charles Moray and Margaret Langton. Both have been hurt by their breakup, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding between them. Wentworth doesn’t minimise this either; they don’t instantly realize they still love each other and immediately reconcile. That adds some depth to their characters and some realism to the story. It’s not hard to cheer for them as they try to work things out and as they try to figure out how to help Margot Standing.
It’s also worth noting that while there is sexism in this novel in more than one place, we don’t really see the “weak and ineffectual female” in the character of Margaret Langton. She’s bright, she takes initiative and she has made a life for herself without “catching a man.” In fact, it’s Langton who finds a way to save herself and Moray when they end up trapped by Grey Mask (a bit more on that in a moment).
Dedicated Maude Silver fans will notice that Miss Silver doesn’t have as strong a presence in this novel as she does in later novels. The plot features Moray, Langton, Archie Millar and Margot Standing a lot more. So Miss Silver’s character is not as richly developed as it later becomes. Nonetheless, she too is bright, resourceful and intuitive without seeming to be possessed of some “magic power” that allows her to guess the truth about this case.
This is an old-fashioned detective novel in a lot of ways. We’ve got a young heiress, a fortune at stake, suspicious masked “bad guys” and a young couple whose relationship goes all the wrong way at times. There’s even a scene in which Langton and Moray end up trapped in a dark cellar by Grey Mask. There are other elements too that we see in other novels of this type, but mentioning them would come too close to spoiler-land.
Readers who prefer the deep characterisation, deep plots and careful gathering and following of evidence in more modern crime novels will be disappointed. That said though, Grey Mask serves as a good example of the old-style detective novel, complete with all the “trimmings.” But what’s your view? Have you read Grey Mask? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 2 July/Tuesday 3 July – Death on a Galician Shore – Domingo Villar
Monday 9 July/Tuesday 10 July – Body on the Stage – Bev Robitai
Monday 16 July/Tuesday 17 July – The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond – Peter Lovesey