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The Chinese Shawl - Patricia Wentworth

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Author: Patricia Wentworth / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      12.10.2007 12:29
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      Classic crime fiction

      Laura Fane is part of a somewhat dysfunctional family. Her father ran away with her mother when he was supposed to be marrying his cousin, Agnes. Since then, the two parts of the family have not spoken to each other, although Laura owns the house that Agnes, her cousin Lucy and second cousin Tanis live in and accepts rent from them on a regular basis. Then Agnes decides that she wants to buy the house from Laura in order to leave it to Tanis and arranges for Laura to meet with her aunts and cousin Tanis. Unfortunately, Tanis is a bit of a bitch; she has a number of men hanging on to her every word, including an ex-husband and other people's partners. Then Tanis is murdered. With any number of suspects available, the police are rather stumped. Luckily, Lucy went to school with Miss Silver, an ex-governess turned private detective, who just happens to be staying at the house already. Can she use her superior detective skills to work out who killed Tanis?

      Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver series is very much of the old school of crime fiction. This particular book is set in the 1940s and this is very obvious, both from the background to the characters and the language. Although Wentworth has her own style, her work can be likened to that of Agatha Christie, and many think that her character, Miss Silver, is a direct rip-off of Miss Marple. There are no doubt similarities, but I still love reading the Miss Silver books and this one is probably one of her best.

      As so often happens with this series, Miss Silver is almost an afterthought and in this book, she doesn't appear until about half way. Laura Fane is the main character; she is a very self-possessed young lady, who is nevertheless quite easy to like. Her involvement with an ex-boyfriend of Tanis' makes her even more interesting and I started to root for her virtually from page one, even though this is a short book and there is no that much room for character development.

      Once Miss Silver is introduced into the book, she does play a major, albeit quiet, role. She is generally known to the police; her former students seem to consist of a series of senior policemen, and as such, she is much appreciated for her investigative abilities. She is very much a thinking detective, just like Miss Marple, but there is a difference - she may rarely be seen without her knitting, but she is much less fluffy.

      I really liked the pacing of the story. It starts out quite gently, introducing us to the characters and their background, then explodes half way through. After that, it is a race to the end to find out who committed the murder. It is not a long book, which to some extent is a disadvantage because I would have liked it to last longer, but then again, it does mean that the story remains fresh and exciting, rather than dragging.

      There is much that is old-fashioned about the book. The names, the language, the things people do all smack of being of a time most readers will never have known. I suspect it was quite old-fashioned even when newly published. I have no doubt this is why Patricia Wentworth is less popular nowadays than she deserves to be. Whereas I think Agatha Christie has an ability to make her books seem as if they could be set in any time period, the Miss Silver series is very definitely early to mid-nineteenth century, making them less accessible to the younger generation. However, it is this very old-fashioned, traditional, cosy feel that I love.

      This is probably one of Patricia Wentworth's best Miss Silver stories and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes crime fiction, particularly if you like the more traditional style, such as Agatha Christie, but also Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers. Don't presume that old-fashioned means bad - Patricia Wentworth's books may have lost their popularity, but they are still a good read and this is an excellent example.

      The book is available from play.com for £5.49, although I bought it from Amazon Marketplace for 2p, so many bargains can be found. Published by Hodder & Stoughton General Division, it has 192 pages. ISBN: 9780340108994

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    • Product Details

      Acclaimed crime classics, beautifully repackaged for a new generation of fans. Tanis Lyie was one of those passionate women who always get their own way. Her cousin Laura hated her. Most women did. But men found her irresistible and she used them mercilessly. So when Tanis was found murdered there seemed to be any number of suspects on hand. But Miss Silver had her own suspicions...