Monday, November 06, 2006

Reading. Wentworth.

In high school I would occasionally try to distract my piano teacher from noticing that I hadn't practiced by starting long conversations about art (she was a docent at the museum, and I was about to head off to college to study art history) and whatever mystery novel I was reading at the moment. After every lesson she would lend me a new one, which I would return the next week. I was envious of her library, one wall lined with floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves, filled with books on art and mystery novels and all sorts of other books, a collection built over many years, with cozy chairs and reading lamps scattered about. Someday I would have a library like that, I promised myself. (I'm not quite there yet, although I have several mis-matched bookcases filled in my bedroom).

I had been, by that time, a longtime reader of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Patricia Wentworth was a newer discovery, and my piano teacher had all of them. Wentworth's detective was the always proper Miss Maud Silver, a former governess who had turned to private detection in order to make a living that would provide her with a comfortable retirement (unlike, as she was wont to remind the reader, the life of a governess, which lead to a retirement of shabby and genteel poverty due to poor pay and less-than-ideal living conditions). She was forever knitting socks or cardigans or onesies for the children of various nieces and former (now happily-married) clients, forever quoting Tennyson, forever speaking British French to her friend, detective Frank Abbott, when they were on the phone and she didn't want to be overheard.

There is a certain sameness to the mysteries; often there is a couple - a beautiful or not-so-beautiful-but-striking young woman and her husband or fiancé - separated by misunderstanding or some foolish quarrel or a domineering relative. There is nearly always a domineering relative - a mother or aunt or stepmother, and a kindly uncle or distant relation hovering around. There is always jealousy and greed and blackmail and murder (of course). Love always triumphs (even if years pass before the parted lovers find their way back to each other, even if it takes a murder to draw them together), justice always triumphs, and the novel ends with an inspiring quote (by Tennyson, naturally) spoken by Miss Silver to the adoring Frank as she pours him a cup of tea in her living room.

Against the horrors of murder and suspicion the calm ordinariness of this fussy little woman who looks exactly like the ex-governess she is, with her Alexandra fringe and mousy hair and colorless skin, her dark, old-fashioned clothes and fantastical hats adorned with feathers or bunches of flowers, her bog-wood brooches carved in the shape of a rose, with a pearl at its heart, her sensible shoes and fur tippet (so cozy, in the unpredictably heated - or unheated - rooms of English country homes where these mysteries unfold) stands out as something almost unreal. But it is this unreal ordinariness, this calm, this insistence on hot tea and boiled eggs and toast when sudden death and fear shrouds the lives of Miss Silver's clients, that gives them a sort of reassurance, that the murderer will be caught, that life will return to normal.

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