The ‘other’ Golden Age Knitting Sleuth – Alice K. Boatwright on Miss Silver
In December 1927, the world’s most famous knitting detective made her first appearance in the pages of The Royal Magazine. Dressed in Victorian black brocade and lace mittens, Miss Jane Marple knitted her way to the solution of a mystery without ever leaving her sitting room in a short story titled “The Tuesday Night Club.” Agatha Christie went on to write 12 novels and 19 more short stories about Miss Marple over the next 49 years.
But only a few months after the publication of “The Tuesday Night Club,” another knitting detective appeared who may well have cast on before Miss Marple. Hodder & Stoughton released Patricia Wentworth’s first Miss Maud Silver mystery, Grey Mask, on October 17, 1928.
No one will argue about which of these knitters holds first place as the most renowned and influential sleuth. Christie’s mysteries, including those about Miss Marple, have sold over two billion copies worldwide, and her creation has been the model for countless other amateur sleuths launched over the past century.
But Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who knitted and detected her way through 32 mysteries between her debut and the author’s death in 1961, is very different from Miss Marple and deserves the place beside her ‘on the podium’.
The Private Enquiry Agent
Most notably, Miss Silver is a professional detective, or, to use the term she prefers, a private enquiry agent. She has a home office, clients, and, thank you very much, collects fees. Her previous experience in the “scholastic profession” (that is to say, she was a governess) provided her with surprisingly relevant skills for a detective. She has excellent judgment about people; the ability to detect fear and lies; a demeanor that makes it clear no nonsense will be tolerated, while, at the same time, inspiring a sense of security and stability that invites confidences. She also has an appearance so innocuous as to make her nearly invisible in social settings. Her unshakeable dedication to truth and justice is ever her guide, regardless of whether the outcome of her enquiry pleases her client or not. As the result of her network of former pupils, their families and friends, she has a steady supply of cases in both London and a variety of fictional towns, villages, and country houses.
Having once feared that she would, like other governesses, end her life in threadbare genteel poverty, Miss Silver is rightfully proud of the success that has enabled her to have a comfortable flat of her own in London and a faithful servant to look after her. Details of her home and its furnishings, her carefully chosen but dowdy clothes, and other hard-won assets are described with evident pleasure.
Respected by the Police
Miss Silver thrives not only because her satisfied clients are happy to recommend her to others in trouble. Unlike many private detectives, “Maudie the Mascot” is highly respected by the police.
This respect no doubt stems from the fact that in “the case of the poisoned caterpillars” she saved the life of her former pupil Randal March, now Inspector March of Ledlington.
Her collaborations with March, and later in the series, Scotland Yard’s Ernest Lamb and rising-star Frank Abbott, involve a high level of give-and-take that leads to successful outcomes.
As an amateur sleuth, Miss Marple becomes involved in murders informally. Her own attitude about her contributions is self-deprecating, even though it is her acute observation of details and ability to link present behavior to past examples from her village life that invariably provide the turning point that unravels the mystery.
Miss Silver is not self-important, but she is confident and knows the value of her services. When she is on a case, she works tirelessly and often lives undercover amongst the suspects, as she conducts research, interviews witnesses, and collaborates with the police.
While their status as amateur versus professional sleuths is an important difference, the two spinsters are also divided by class. Miss Marple comes from a family where she had a governess; she was not raised to become one herself. She lives in her own home in St. Mary Mead with a private income and servants, as well as a successful nephew, Raymond West, who sweeps in, as needed, to provide treats, such as the trip described in A Caribbean Mystery.
Of modest means
Miss Silver has no such financial backing. In fact, in her family, she is the one who doles out loans, rather than vice versa.
For Miss Marple, knitting “something fluffy” is a ladylike pastime, but Miss Silver churns away like a knitting machine to keep her family and friends in coatees, jumpers, and socks.
During the time Wentworth was writing the 32 Miss Silver mysteries (1928–61), she was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, with Hodder & Stoughton publishing the books in the UK and J.B. Lippincott in the US.
Only seven Miss Marples were published during these years, but over time, Miss Silver could not compete with Christie’s legendary popularity. One reason may be that, while Wentworth’s mysteries feature a character in many ways ahead of her time and inventively plotted crimes, each also includes a thwarted romance that readers can rely on to come right by the end. The overall tone is softer than that of Christie’s mysteries.
In recent years, Miss Silver has benefited from the proliferation of new cozy mystery writers, as well as the interest in the genre’s Golden Age roots. In the UK, handsome new editions are available from Hodder & Stoughton for all of the Miss Silvers, while Dean Street Press offers Wentworth’s 33 other books. All 65 titles are also available as e-books from Open Road Media, a US-based company giving fresh life to neglected Golden Age mysteries and other works.
For readers, in the end, there is no need to choose one or the other: Miss Marple is perfect with a cup of tea by the fireside, while there is nothing better than Miss Silver and a cup of cocoa at bedtime.
Alice K. Boatwright
Alice K. Boatwright’s Ellie Kent mysteries focus on an American who marries an English vicar and takes up sleuthing after being accused of murder herself. A long-time resident of the UK and France, Alice now lives in Seattle, WA and is a member of the CWA Overseas Chapter.