Close on the heels of reading an Agatha Christie book and reconnecting with mystery, I decided to try a mystery author that I have never read before. With this in mind, I started “Grey Mask” by Patricia Wentworth. This is the first book by Wentworth that features Miss Silver, and old sleuth who solves mysteries and is sometimes compared to Miss Marple of Agatha Christie fame. While the book was first published almost 90 years ago, it was new to me and I went into it not knowing what to expect but hoping to not be disappointed.
“Grey Mask” is the story of a man, Charles Moray, who returns home to England to claim his inheritance. Feeling restless, he goes to the house that he has just inherited, even though it is supposed to be empty, and finds that a crime ring has been set up in the house. He hides in his childhood hiding spot and watches as a couple of the members are called upon to speak to the leader: the Grey Mask. The group is planning on ensuring that the fortune of Mr. Standing, who was recently lost at sea when he fell off his yacht, goes to his nephew, Edmund, and not his illegitimate daughter, Margo. Charles plans on going directly to the police when his ex-fiance, Margaret, comes into the room and speaks to the Grey Mask. Torn between his desire to break up the group and his love for Margaret, he decides to try to remove her from the situation so that she is not in trouble when the police intervene.
The matter only becomes more involved as all of the players enter into the narrative. The Grey Mask wants Edmund to marry Margo to settle the estate but, when Margo bluntly refuses, the decision is made that she must be eliminated. Margo overhears this and goes into hiding only to become the guest of Margaret. Trying to figure the situation out so that he can remove Margaret from the situation and call in the police, Charles goes to Miss Silver and enlists her help in untangling the web of deception. Miss Silver begins to ask questions and dispense advice in her grandmotherly way and essentially leads Charles to make his own (and correct) conclusions. Miss Silver is enigmatic in how she knows some of the things she knows but does not fail to come through for Charles in the end. But as the scheme unwinds and the past comes rushing forward to clash with the present, Charles will be forced to face down the Grey Mask and battle for both his life and the life of his once beloved Margaret.
The thing that struck me most about the book is that while it is billed as a Miss Silver mystery, the character has a fairly minor role in the story. She appears in only around 30 pages of the story (which was 234 pages in ebook form) and takes very little action. For the most part, she reacts to the people that come to her although she seems to know what is going on in advance of their visit and has the answers that they need. She is more of an advisor rather than a sleuth and she leads the characters that seek her advice (mostly Charles) to find the answers rather than give them the answers they seek. This kind of selfless advice and spotlight avoidance is very different from modern characters that would be pounding their chests and proclaiming their genius. I have to admit that it was refreshing.
The fact that Miss Silver was a minor character rather than an overriding presence in the story is not to say that this was a bad book. I was, in fact, pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Since I am not a huge fan of mystery and had never read any of Patricia Wentworth’s books (of which there are more than 30 novels that feature Miss Silver) before, I was not sure what to expect when I started the story and what I found was an interesting tale handled with an expert author’s handling of pacing to keep the reader enthralled in the story and drug along for the ride. Yes, I was able to figure out the ending of the story, but that is not uncommon for me and that is not to say the story was not well written. With just enough detail to hook the reader into the world of the novel but not too much to keep the pace of the storm from slowing, Wentworth delivers a short novels worth of a mystery that is sure to thrill fans old and new.