She was so rigidly controlled as she came into the dock that she wasn’t Carey Silence any more, or a girl, or young, but just a will to walk straight and seemly, to hold a proud head high, to bar sight and hearing against all these people who had come to see her tried for her life.
Silence in Court – recently reissued by prolific resurrectionists Dean Street Press – is my first encounter with Patricia Wentworth. I knew Wentworth by reputation as the author of the Miss Silver series, but not as a writer of stand-alone mysteries. We get the chance to learn more about the author in Curtis Evans’ biographical introduction.
Carey Silence (great name) is a young woman left homeless, jobless and penniless after a German attack. She is therefore greatly relieved to be invited to stay with Honoria Maquisten, an old friend of her grandmother’s, at her London home.
Honoria rules the roost from her invalid’s bed, chopping and changing her will to keep a small band of relatives dancing attendance.
‘Don’t any of you ever talk or think of anything but Cousin Honoria’s will?’
‘Oh sometimes – just to fill in odd moments.’
‘Because it’s frightfully bad for you, and frightfully boring.’
‘Boring? Oh no, darling – we’re passionately interested. It’s the golden link that binds us.’
Her charming nephew Dennis has been invalided out of the War and may yet lose his foot. Equally charming niece Nora (names for Honoria) has a husband in the Far East. The utterly charmless Honor (another namesake) packs parcels for POWs and has a secret passion for a solicitor’s clerk. A nasty old maidservant and a starchy nurse round out the household.
In a very short time, Carey is established as a firm favourite, and gets herself written into the will. When Honoria threatens to alter her will for one last time, and is promptly poisoned, Carey is the obvious suspect.
The remainder of the book plays out as a courtroom drama, with Carey’s chubby, boyish barrister defending her against a mountain of circumstantial evidence and hostile witnesses.
A romantic subplot is a will-they-won’t-they love triangle. Wealthy American Jeff has proposed to Carey and is waiting for her answer – it is he who arranges for her defence. Meanwhile, Carey’s head has been turned by the flirtatious Dennis.
I am reading Silence in Court as part of Crimes of the Century for 1945. It is a good choice as it depicts a family deeply affected by the War, and yet carrying on with the rest of their lives regardless. There are other signs of change also:
Number 13 had all its windows… The door had been painted black. The ornate brass knocker which had once adorned it had passed into salvage Vaguely its outline could be traced upon the dimmed surface of the paint. The number 13 displayed above in white paint replaced the brass figures, which had also gone.
Wentworth was obviously good at people, and the various characters in the Maquisten household stand out strongly as individuals. Carey has our full sympathy as a victim of the legal machine.
She stood there as white as linen, and saw the court and all the people crowded there as if she were looking at them through water. Everything swam, and wavered, and floated. The scarlet of the judge’s robes was like a spreading stain. She heard him say,
‘Is that the verdict of you all?’
But she never heard what the foreman said in reply, because a blackness came down between her and the crowded court.
All very readable, and I’ll be on the lookout for more Wentworth.
Silence in Court
First published in the US by J.B. Lippincott Co, 1945
This edition, Dean Street Press, 2016
Source: Publisher’s review copy – thank you!
Final destination: A keeper
crossexaminingcrime: The premise of this story may feel quite familiar to readers, but Wentworth is adept at telling her tale well. Characterisation is one of her particular strengths, as all the inmates in Honoria’s house stand out as individuals and from the beginning you can see the underlying tensions which constrain and beleaguer them. The characterisation of Carey is especially good as we are able to see the effect being arrested has had on her, the strain, the stress and loss of identity.