Four years after being jilted by Margaret Langton on the eve of their wedding, Charles Moray returns home to find a secretive meeting taking place in his house. A man in a grey mask is directing people and referring to them as numbers—and one of the numbered agents is Margaret Langton. When Charles reads about a young woman whose millionaire father has died, leaving her inheritance in the balance because of a missing marriage certificate, he connects the meeting in his house with the missing documents and approaches Miss Maud Silver, an elderly private investigator recommended for her skills at recovering missing jewelry. But Charles isn’t ready to divulge all the facts to Miss Silver, and the longer he holds out information, the longer the woman he still loves remains in danger.
Grey Mask is the first of thirty-two novels in the Miss Silver series, written by Patricia Wentworth between 1928 and 1961. It is almost impossible to read reviews of the Miss Silver series without landing on comparisons between it and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. Reviewers are split over whether Miss Silver is a sub-par edition of the more famous Miss Marple, or whether Miss Silver is Miss Marple’s more clever contemporary. Without delving too deeply into comparisons, I will say that I enjoyed Grey Mask much more than many of the Miss Marple mysteries I’ve read.
Every scene, even every paragraph, builds solidly on the previous one, creating a satisfying web of mystery. The authentic characters are complex yet consistent. Romance drives the story without taking over. Vivid description transports readers to 1920s London.
Interestingly, although Miss Silver’s name is on the book cover as the series title, she does not play the role of protagonist. So I wonder, will Miss Silver always be just one of each book’s many interesting characters? Or will she eventually become the star of the series bearing her name? She’s a captivating character for many reasons. For one, when speaking with other characters, she includes them in her thought-process, allowing readers, too, to see her steel-trap mind at work. And I love that Miss Silver knits socks. Her shiny needles have the power to disrupt protagonist Charles Moray’s composure:
Miss Silver smiled suddenly. The smile had the most extraordinary effect on her face; it was just as if an expressionless mask had been lifted and a friendly, pleasant face had looked out from behind it.
“It’s no good, Mr. Moray.”
Charles said, “I beg your pardon?”
The smile was still there.
“I can’t take your case unless you’re going to trust me. I can’t work for a client who only tells me snippets and odds and ends. ‘Trust me all in all, or not at all’ is my motto. Tennyson is out of fashion, but I admire him very much, and that is my motto.”
Charles looked at her with the suspicion of a twinkle. What a Victorian little person! He became aware of a half-knitted stocking on her lap, steel needles bristling. It seemed to him very appropriate. He twinkled, and replied to her quotation with another:
“The Taran-Tula Indians say that you may catch a snake by the tail, but you should never trust a woman.”
Miss Silver looked sorry for the Taran-Tula Indians … She picked up the stocking and began to knit, holding the needles in the German way. After one round she looked at Charles and smiled again.
“Well, Mr. Moray?”
How about you, reader? Can you trust a knitting sleuth?