THE IVORY DAGGER (1950) by Patricia Wentworth

Wentworth_Ivory-Dagger_bantamI may not be a particular fan of cosies (or even ‘cozies’) but for decades Wentworth was a truly ubiquitous figure – so it’s about time Fedora posted a review of one of her mysteries. Doris Amy Elles (1878-1961) as Wentworth wrote nearly three dozen whodunits featuring Miss Maud Silver, a retired  schoolteacher turned professional sleuth. Dagger is, by my reckoning (see below) the 18th in the series and features a peculiar scenario in which a woman apparently stabs her fiancée while sleepwalking after an overdose of Walter Scott’s fiction! But did she actually do it?

I offer the following reviews as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge.

“She awoke under a blaze of light. She was in the study. The overhead light was on, the room was a s bright as day. Herbert Whitall was lying sprawled across the carpet. he was dead. She had never seen a dead person before but she was very sure that he was dead”

Beautiful but weak-willed Lila Dryden is being forced into marriage to the wealthy, chilly and much older Herbert Whitall by her domineering aunt. Friends and her ex-fiancée try to talk her out of it, but Lila really is a total drip, so lacking in confidence that she will go through with the wedding just not to offend, despite the fact that she is physically repulsed by Herbert (and most men actually) – which is fair enough as he is a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

“She’s very lovely, and she’s very sweet, but the man who marries her will have to be her father, and her brother, and her nursemaid, as well as her husband”

Shortly before the wedding he is stabbed to death with the eponymous instrument and everybody in his country retreat, Vineyards, is a suspect – his neer-do-well cousin who stands to inherit, a Professor with whom he argued about the provenance of the ancient dagger, unhappy servants (including a personal secretary who clearly had a fling with him) and so on. But Lila is the prime suspect after being found standing next to the body, covered in his blood and holding the knife. Apparently she had found Whitall and the knife while sleepwalking – but was her subconscious acting out after Lila was disconcerted the evening before by a telling of Scott’s novel Bride of Lammermoor, which also ended in a similar stabbing? Lila’s aunt calls in Miss Silver to solve the case, and save the family honour. She quickly partners up with her friend, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Abbott (the two even chat in French so as to speak freely mixed company) and after many, many interviews and little trips to opportunely overhear private conversations, the culprit is found and young love triumphs.

“I do not come into a case to prove anyone innocent, or guilty. I come into it to discover the truth and to serve the ends of justice”

Wentworth_Ivory-Dagger_pbPeople love the Miss Silver books but I have only read another in my dim and distant teenage past (Eternity Ring) so was quite looking forward to this, albeit from a position of lost complete ignorance. However, I must come clean and state that I was thoroughly unimpressed by this very mediocre offering. For one thing, this a remarkably by-the-book, ultra traditional Golden Age detective story: we have the murder victim, a nasty patriarch who nobody seemed to like at all; the cast of relatives expecting to inherit from his will that was due to be altered in four of his bride-to-be just before he was killed, so giving nearly all of them a motive; the star-crossed young lovers; and the sleuth who softly, softly gets to the truth. Just how many GAD clichés can one book hold? Plenty, it turns out in this case …

Lots of people seem to really like this book going by reviews online but I just can’t understand why. To me there is simply nothing to distinguish it from hundreds and hundreds of others, except in a negative way as by 1950 the world and style it inhabits already seemed to belong to another era. There is no momentum to the narrative at all – once Miss Silver arrives some 60 pages in it is just a succession of interviews until an arrest is made some 160 pages later, with very little to engage the reader in terms of drama (no further criminals activity is recorded). And the mindset is certainly very Edwardian even though it is definitely set in the (then) postwar present day. That it is very much a pre-war tome in style is confirmed by the revelation of the villain’s identity, which I won’t spoil but which is really, really underwhelming, recycling as it does just about the hoariest cliché of the genre imaginable, without apology or irony, seemingly unaware that it will make practically any aficionado roll their eyes in sheer disbelief!

So one star because it is perfectly solidly constructed and another half just for the sheer cheek of its ending, though I am not at all sure if the intent was in any sense parodic.

The Miss Maud Silver mysteries:

  1. Grey Mask (1928)
  2. The Case is Closed (1937)
  3. Lonesome Road (1939)
  4. Danger Point (1941)  aka In the Balance
  5. The Chinese Shawl (1943)
  6. Miss Silver Intervenes (1943)  aka Miss Silver Deals with Death
  7. The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944)
  8. The Key (1944)
  9. The Traveller Returns (1945)  aka She Came Back
  10. Pilgrim´s Rest (1946)  aka Dark Threat
  11. Wentworth_Ivory-Dagger_pb2Latter End (1947)
  12. Spotlight aka Wicked Uncle (1947)
  13. Eternity Ring (1948)
  14. The Case of William Smith (1948)
  15. Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949)
  16. The Catherine Wheel (1949)
  17. Through the Wall (1950)
  18. The Ivory Dagger (1950)
  19. The Brading Collection (1950)  aka Mr Brading´s Collection
  20. Anna, Where Are You? (1951) aka Death at Deep End
  21. The Watersplash (1951)
  22. Ladies´ Bane (1952)
  23. Out of the Past (1953)
  24. Vanishing Point (1953)
  25. The Benevent Treasure (1953)
  26. The Silent Pool (1954)
  27. The Listening Eye (1955)
  28. Poison in the Pen (1955)
  29. The Gazebo (1956) aka The Summerhouse
  30. The Fingerprint (1956)
  31. The Alington Inheritance (1958)
  32. The Girl in the Cellar (1961)

This book was a gift from the very kind Bev Hankin, the generous hostess of  2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo – I submit this review in the ‘murder weapon’ category:

08-Vintage-Wentworth

***** (1.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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48 Responses to THE IVORY DAGGER (1950) by Patricia Wentworth

  1. realthog says:

    Too right. I prefer the stuff she wrote under her Dashiell Hammett pseudonym . . .

    Like you, I recall reading a Wentworth or two decades ago in my teens, and finding them just flat and dull. Recently I’ve been meaning to give her another whirl (often enough I find my teenage judgements were a bit rash), but it sounds like I need hardly bother!

  2. Sorry to hear this one didn’t do it for you, Sergio. But then, I suppose no author is for everyone…

    • Fair enough Margot – I love Golden Age detective stories, but darn it, when it comes to the genre and its cliches, there are limits, and I think I just hit mine 🙂

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have never read this author and after reading your review, I have no inclination to do so !

    • I would hate to put you off Santosh, but stay away from this one what ever you do!!!

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Well, I just read another book by the author Miss Sally Comes To Stay. I found the writing style appalling. It is flat, dull and rigid evoking no interest at all. Also, I found the solution really underwhelming.
        No more Patricia Wentworth !

        • Thanks Santosh – because I trust the Puzzle Doctor I may have to try the one he recommended but I suspect, like you, that the Wentworth approach is just too formulaic for me.

  4. Colin says:

    One of those authors whose name is familiar yet I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by her. The plot, and indeed the whole setup here, doesn’t sound the least bit original but that may be part of the reason the writer remains popular – I guess we all do a fair bit of comfort reading and familiar territory, even if it strays into cliche and formula, will draw in a lot of people. I don’t see myself in a hurry to read this one myself, mind.

    • You are right of course and hopefully there are better Wentworth books out there. But literally, if you had wanted to created a completely archetypal Golden Age mystery so that you could trash it, this would be it! Makes me even more impressed by the likes of Allingham, Carr and Sayers for standing out in a field knee-deep in very avergae product.

      • Colin says:

        Well that’s it. I suppose it’s easy for us to forget just how crowded the market was for this kind of story back then, and how much of it must have been rather mediocre as a consequence.

        • It is possible that I picked a real duffer – Noah Stewart has blogged on the Miss Silver series and given it much more respect than I have: http://noah-stewart.com/2015/03/02/miss-silver-comes-to-stay-by-patricia-wentworth-1949/#comment-9041

          • Colin says:

            True. Every author has a turkey or two among their works. Then again, it depends on what each person is looking for in a book – some will rave about the likes of Mary Roberts Rinehart but I struggled to get through a handful of her stories years ago.

          • I feel the same about Rinehart – I know you and I are not the target audience, but that always feel like at best a cop out and at worst a defeat for one’s critical faculties … not to mention bloody sexist in this case!

          • Colin says:

            You know, much as I dislike the notion of target audiences, it’s something I increasingly try to take into account when deciding what to read, or not. Certain writers or styles just aren’t going to work for me, or at least will probably fail to engage me. I don’t see it as necessarily the writer’s fault, or mine either- we can’t like everything.

          • There are genres that I enjoy at the movies (westerns for instance) that have not thus far translated into my reading preferences for instance, so one would have to accept that – and yet, for me, this is mainly about straightforward genre when it comes to books to pass the time. If it’s a serious book (sic) and I heard good things about it or it was by an author I like and respect, I wouldn’t give a damn about the genre. So it’s about shortcuts I guess – and there is never enough time …

  5. mikeripley says:

    Famously, whilst on holiday in a very wet west Wales, Colin Dexter turned to a detective story to relieve the boredom. Very quickly he thought “I can do better than this” and started to write the first Inspector Morse novel… It was more than 20 years later that I persuaded Colin (in public at the BFI) to reveal who had written that detective story which spurred him on to do better. Guess who?
    Patricia Wentworth!

    • Brilliant stuff Mike – I had no idea about this – well done for getting it out of him. If only I’d known it sooner 🙂

    • realthog says:

      Colin Dexter turned to a detective story to relieve the boredom. Very quickly he thought “I can do better than this” and started to write the first Inspector Morse novel

      There’s an essay by Ngaio Marsh at the front of her Collected Stories (ed Douglas G. Greene) that tells us it was a very similar impulse that drove her to write the first Roderick Alleyn novel. She courteously declines to name the guilty parties, though.

    • curtis evans says:

      Dexter wrote puzzle mysteries, Wentworth wrote village cozies. I would certainly concede that Dexter’s puzzles are better than Wentworth’s but the puzzle is not Wentworth’s primary attraction to her readers; it’s that outdated social milieu that Sergio dislikes, along with the emotional interest. To criticize Wentworth’s fiction as formulaic seems to miss the point that that’s precisely its attraction to people. It’s a very reassuring formula, for those who like that sort of thing.

      • I don’t think this is entirely right in terms of my feeling or lack thereof when it comes to ‘cosies’ – I like the milieu fine when it’s Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Philip Macdonald, Patrick Quentin (et al), Ellery Queen and of course Carr – it’s just that Wentworth does nothing with it except recycle it – that doens’t seem to say much for her fans, and since these include a lot of very sensible people (like you and Noah) I remain, perplexed … It’s not what she’s doing, it’s how well she is doing it, surely? Tjough granted, to misquote Chandler, if Wentworth were a better writer, she probably wouldn’t have any fans at all …

  6. Great story from Mike Ripley above. And hilarious review Sergio – that’s 30 books you don’t have to worry about ever reading. I first read her years ago, and had a similar reaction to you and Mr Dexter – disbelief! Now I like to pick one up every five years or so to remind myself why I’m not entranced by her. Though I do like the clothes and other details of life – I think she’d be good for the blog if I could bear to read more….

  7. curtis evans says:

    Sergio, I’m not sure many people would have recommended The Ivory Dagger as the one book by Wentworth to read. I’ve read some by her I didn’t like, but as I said on the blog I quite liked Miss Silver Comes to Stay. I gave an unenthusiastic review to Eternity Ring,

    “To me there is simply nothing to distinguish it from hundreds and hundreds of others, except in a negative way as by 1950 the world and style seemed it inhabits already seemed to belong to another era.”

    It’s precisely her stylized village world I find interesting. She seems the perfect embodiment of the traditional village cozy. Above you say I call her “dark.” I don’t believe the case I tried to make for her was based on darkness, but rather her significance in the cozy tradition. Her village books really do perfectly embody to tradition about which Auden wrote.

    • Hi Curtis, I take your point and it looks like I picked a poor book to enagge with, though the various elements sound exactly like all her other works. I think you are, on this evidence, being charitable with the word ‘stylised’ though – that suggests something other than ‘old fashioned’ in the sense of an approach that had not changed n 20 plus years … (which typos aside, is what I was trying to say). I remembered your comment that her works might convey something more menaingful in terms of subtext but this became ‘dark’ in my response – sorry iof that was the wrong word.

  8. Noah Stewart says:

    Thanks for referring your readers to my piece, Sergio … I think it’s very true that Wentworth is a peculiar and acquired taste, and I think your assessment is very accurate. The Ivory Dagger is fairly representative, I think, and one just has to hold one’s nose and gulp the cliches whole. But there is very little that’s realistic here. There’s a funny mystery by Barbara Paul called “But He Was Already Dead When I Got There” that skewers the cliche of the wealthy man changing his will, quarrelling with all his relatives, and then having all the suspects troop in and out of his study at 15-minute intervals before he’s found dead. All I can say is, when Wentworth does it, I can accept it because these are stories I like to read, and I’m sorry that you don’t, because there are great piles of them that you would then be able to look forward to! Curtis Evans has put it better than I — these are the perfect embodiment of the traditional village cozy, but as I say, these are written primarily for a female audience.

  9. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve never managed to get very far into a Miss Silver – just too whispy and insubsantial. And compared to the Golden Age writers, there’s nothing to make me want to invest time in reading her!

  10. tracybham says:

    I read quite a bit of the Miss Silver series when I was younger… and I don’t mean in my teens. I read Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner in my teens. I read Christie and Wentworth (and many others) in my twenties and thirties. I remember liking the Wentworth books although also finding them repetitive. I do have some to read someday and I hope to start with some that are considered better. Actually your review has pushed me to want to do this sooner rather than later, if I can find the time.

    • realthog says:

      Actually your review has pushed me to want to do this sooner rather than later

      That’s interesting, Tracy. Like yourself, after the discussion here I’m experiencing a yen to give Wentworth one more — possibly one last — try.

      • I always hating publishing a negative review so, after the dust has settled, plan to try another if I am promised that it will be much better than Ivory Dagger 🙂

    • Thanks for that Tracy – everyone seems to agree that her books tend to keep to certain plots, settings and situations – I clearly picked a poor one though so am gla dto hear of the ones tht really stick out in readers’ minds.

  11. Sarah says:

    I’ve tried to like the Miss Silver books but I find them a bit dry. I have a few on my shelves to read but I never seem to be tempted by them.

  12. Sergio, I feel ridiculous being familiar with the author on one hand and having absolutely no idea about the Miss Maud Silver series on the other. Thanks for putting me wise to her prolific work.

    • Wentworth was amazingly proflific – at least 70 books to ger name I believe! Wish I’d liked this one more, but there you go, until you reach the end you just can’t tell …

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I’m a Miss Silver fan–in small doses. I can’t read too many in a row because she does follow the same well-worn paths over and over, but I generally enjoy them. I can say that I do remember The Ivory Dagger as one of the less favored. Since I’ve started the blog, the one I’ve rated the highest was The Key. Perhaps it would be more to your liking? I’ve linked my review….

    • Thank you Bev – I will definitely look out for that one – thanks very much for the gift of the book, made it special even if the inside was a bit of a letdown 🙂

  14. John says:

    Ah shoot, Sergio. I was hoping for a few cracks about Miss Silver’s coughing habit. Do you remember any of that? It drove me nuts when I read PILGRIM’S REST. Or was she finally cured by the time THE IVORY DAGGER came out? As you might expect I won’t be joining the MWLW club Curt is trying to form. ;^)

    I’m in the same boat with you. I dislike writers who refuse to adapt with the times. I read a mystery novel published in the 1950s by Clifford Witting last month and criticized it for being a throwback to the kind of master criminal world of Edgar Wallace, circa 1920s. Made no sense to me. Most writers at least try to reflect modern behavior and attitudes the older they get; some succeed while others fail. But not to bother trying simply because a writer wants to please her readers? I don’t get it. Did Wentworth never want to challenge herself? How much was her choice and how much was her publisher’s suggestions? Or was perhaps she incapable of adapting?

    Jean Bowden, about whom I wrote about a few weeks ago, recognized that she no longer could think like a 21st century young woman and couldn’t create realistic characters anymore. So she stopped writing novels. That’s maturity and wisdom from a writer.

    • Thanks for that John – and yes, her hortatory cough is very much in evidence 🙂 I guess la Wentworth really didn’t want to stray from her formula! I think one has to accept that much of this is common in most series and as you say, as much a pressure from the marketplace and the publishers as an unwillingness to try new things. But her legions of fans seem exceptionally satisfied, so … Just go tmy hands on the Joan Fleming you recommended by the way – thanks as ever go the great advice chum.

  15. robinpruter says:

    One thing a good review such as yours does is, regardless of the ultimate evaluation (here poor), suggest to the reader whether he/she will like the thing being reviewed. Your review gives me the perfect sense that I will love this book because I revel in the GAD cliches, as you call them. I’m a fan of Wentworth, but I haven’t read this one yet. It’s in my TBR pile, but your review makes me want to move it to the top.

    • Thanks very much Robin – Wentworth seems to still be a popular writer and I suspect I am very much in the minority. On the other hand, I do love Golden Age fiction – I just prefer when it comes from the likes of John Dickson Carr and Margery Allingham 🙂

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