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The Sirens of Suspense

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Patricia Wentworth (born Dora Amy Elles; October 15, 1877 – January 28, 1961) was a British crime fiction writer.

She was born in Gwalior, India, educated privately and at Blackheath High School in London.

After the death of her first husband, George F. Dillon, in 1906, she settled in Camberley, Surrey. She married George Oliver Turnbull in 1920 and they had one daughter.

Wentworth wrote a series of 32 crime novels in the classic-style whodunit featuring Miss Maud Silver, a retired governess and teacher who becomes a professional private detective, in London, England. She works closely with Scotland Yard, especially Inspector Frank Abbott and is fond of quoting the poet Tennyson. Miss Silver is sometimes compared to Jane Marple, the elderly detective created by Agatha Christie.

 

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British author Patricia Wentworth published her first novel, a gripping tale of desperate love during the French Revolution entitled A Marriage under the Terror, a little over a century ago, in 1910. The book won first prize in the Melrose Novel Competition and was a popular success in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Over the next five years Wentworth published five additional novels, the majority of them historical fiction, the best-known of which today is The Devil’s Wind (1912), another sweeping period romance, this one set during the Sepoy Mutiny (1857-58) in India, a region with which the author, as we shall see, had extensive familiarity. Like A Marriage under the Terror, The Devil’s Wind received much praise from reviewers for its sheer storytelling Úlan. One notice, for example, pronounced the novel “an achievement of some magnitude” on account of “the extraordinary vividness…the reality of the atmosphere…the scenes that shift and move with the swiftness of a moving picture….” (The Bookman, August 1912) With her knack for spinning a yarn, it perhaps should come as no surprise that Patricia Wentworth during the early years of the Golden Age of mystery fiction (roughly from 1920 into the 1940s) launched upon her own mystery-writing career, a course charted most successfully for nearly four decades by the prolific author, right up to the year of her death in 1961.

Considering that Patricia Wentworth belongs to the select company of Golden Age mystery writers with books which have remained in print in every decade for nearly a century now (the centenary of Agatha Christie’s first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, is in 2020; the centenary of Wentworth’s first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, follows merely three years later, in 2023), relatively little is known about the author herself. It appears, for example, that even the widely given year of Wentworth’s birth, 1878, is incorrect. Yet it is sufficiently clear that Wentworth lived a varied and intriguing life that provided her ample inspiration for a writing career devoted to imaginative fiction.

It is usually stated that Patricia Wentworth was born Dora Amy Elles on 10 November 1878 in Mussoorie, India, during the heyday of the British Raj; however, her Indian birth and baptismal record states that she in fact was born on 15 October 1877 and was baptized on 26 November of that same year in Gwalior. Whatever doubts surround her actual birth year, however, unquestionably the future author came from a prominent Anglo-Indian military family. Her father, Edmond Roche Elles, a son of Malcolm Jamieson Elles, a Porto, Portugal wine merchant originally from Ardrossan, Scotland, entered the British Royal Artillery in 1867, a decade before Wentworth’s birth, and first saw service in India during the Lushai Expedition of 1871-72. The next year Elles in India wed Clara Gertrude Rothney, daughter of Brigadier-General Octavius Edward Rothney, commander of the Gwalior District, and Maria (Dempster) Rothney, daughter of a surgeon in the Bengal Medical Service. Four children were born of the union of Edmond and Clara Elles, Wentworth being the only daughter.

Before his retirement from the army in 1908, Edmond Elles rose to the rank of lieutenant-general and was awarded the KCB (Knight Commander of the Order of Bath), as was the case with his elder brother, Wentworth’s uncle, Lieutenant-General Sir William Kidston Elles, of the Bengal Command. Edmond Elles also served as Military Member to the Council of the Governor-General of India from 1901 to 1905. Two of Wentworth’s brothers, Malcolm Rothney Elles and Edmond Claude Elles, served in the Indian Army as well, though both of them died young (Malcolm in 1906 drowned in the Ganges Canal while attempting to rescue his orderly, who had fallen into the water), while her youngest brother, Hugh Jamieson Elles, achieved great distinction in the British Army. During the First World War he catapulted, at the relatively youthful age of 37, to the rank of brigadier-general and the command of the British Tank Corps, at the Battle of Cambrai personally leading the advance of more than 350 tanks against the German line. Years later Hugh Elles also played a major role in British civil defense during the Second World War. In the event of a German invasion of Great Britain, something which seemed all too possible in 1940, he was tasked with leading the defense of southwestern England. Like Sir Edmond and Sir William, Hugh Elles attained the rank of lieutenant-general and was awarded the KCB.item6

Although she was born in India, Patricia Wentworth spent much of her childhood in England. In 1881 she with her mother and two younger brothers was at Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on what appears to have been a rather extended visit in her ancestral country; while a decade later the same family group resided at Blackheath, London at Lennox House, domicile of Wentworth’s widowed maternal grandmother, Maria Rothney. (Her eldest brother, Malcolm, was in Bristol attending Clifton College.) During her years at Lennox House, Wentworth attended Blackheath High School for Girls, then only recently founded as “one of the first schools in the country to give girls a proper education” (The London Encyclopaedia, 3rd ed., p. 74). Lennox House was an ample Victorian villa with a great glassed-in conservatory running all along the back and a substantial garden--most happily, one presumes, for Wentworth, who resided there not only with her grandmother, mother and two brothers, but also five aunts (Maria Rothney’s unmarried daughters, aged 26 to 42), one adult first cousin once removed and nine first cousins, adolescents like Wentworth herself, from no less than three different families (one Barrow, three Masons and five Dempsters); their parents, like Wentworth’s father, presumably were living many miles away in various far-flung British dominions. Three servants--a cook, parlourmaid and housemaid--were tasked with serving this full score of individuals.

Sometime after graduating from Blackheath High School in the mid-1890s, Wentworth returned to India, where in a local British newspaper she is said to have published her first fiction. In 1901 the 23-year-old Wentworth married widower George Fredrick Horace Dillon, a 41-year-old lieutenant-colonel in the Indian Army with three sons from his prior marriage. Two years later Wentworth gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Clare Roche Dillon. (In some sources it is erroneously stated that Clare was the offspring of Wentworth’s second marriage.) However in 1906, after just five years of marriage, George Dillon died suddenly on a sea voyage, leaving Wentworth with sole responsibility for her three teenaged stepsons and baby daughter. A very short span of years, 1904 to 1907, saw the deaths of Wentworth’s husband, mother, grandmother and brothers Malcolm and Edmond, removing much of her support network. In 1908, however, her father, who was now sixty years old, retired from the army and returned to England, settling at Guildford, Surrey with an older unmarried sister named Dora (for whom his daughter presumably had been named). Wentworth joined this household as well, along with her daughter and her youngest stepson. Here in Surrey Wentworth, presumably with the goal of making herself financially independent for the first time in her life (she was now in her early thirties), wrote the novel that changed the course of her life, A Marriage under the Terror, for the first time we know of utilizing her famous nom de plume.

The burst of creative energy that resulted in Wentworth’s publication of six novels in six years suddenly halted after the appearance of Queen Anne Is Dead in 1915. It seems not unlikely that the Great War impinged in various ways on her writing. One tragic episode was the death on the western front of one of her stepsons, George Charles Tracey Dillon. Mining in Colorado when war was declared, young Dillon worked his passage from Galveston, Texas to Bristol, England as a shipboard muleteer (mule-tender) and joined the Gloucestershire Regiment. In 1916 he died at the Somme at the age of 29 (about the age of Wentworth’s two brothers when they had passed away in India). 

A couple of years after the conflict’s cessation in 1918, a happy event occurred in Wentworth’s life when at Frimley, Surrey she wed George Oliver Turnbull, up to this time a lifelong bachelor who like the author’s first husband was a lieutenant-colonel in the Indian Army. Like his bride now forty-two years old, George Turnbull as a younger man had distinguished himself for his athletic prowess, playing forward for eight years for the Scottish rugby team and while a student at the Royal Military Academy winning the medal awarded the best athlete of his term. It seems not unlikely that Turnbull played a role in his wife’s turn toward writing mystery fiction, for he is said to have strongly supported Wentworth’s career, even assisting her in preparing manuscripts for publication. In 1936 the couple in Camberley, Surrey built Heatherglade House, a large two-story structure on substantial grounds, where they resided until Wentworth’s death a quarter of a century later. (George Turnbull survived his wife by nearly a decade, passing away in 1970 at the age of 92.) This highly successful middle-aged companionate marriage contrasts sharply with the more youthful yet rocky union of Agatha and Archie Christie, which was three years away from sundering when Wentworth published The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith (1923), the first of her sixty-five mystery novels.

Although Patricia Wentworth became best-known for her cozy tales of the criminal investigations of consulting detective Miss Maud Silver, one of the mystery genre’s most prominent spinster sleuths, in truth the Miss Silver tales account for just under half of Wentworth’s 65 mystery novels. Miss Silver did not make her debut until 1928 and she did not come to predominate in Wentworth’s fictional criminous output until the 1940s. Between 1923 and 1945 Wentworth published 33 mystery novels without Miss Silver, a handsome and substantial legacy in and of itself to vintage crime fiction fans. Many of these books are standalone tales of mystery, but nine of them have series characters. Debuting in the novel Fool Errant in 1929, a year after Miss Silver first appeared in print, was the enigmatic, nautically-named eminence grise Benbow Collingwood Horatio Smith, owner of a most expressively opinionated parrot named Ananias (and quite a colorful character in his own right). Benbow Smith went on to appear in three additional Wentworth mysteries: Danger Calling (1931), Walk with Care (1933) and Down Under (1937). Working in tandem with Smith in the investigation of sinister affairs threatening the security of Great Britain in Danger Calling and Walk with Care is Frank Garrett, Head of Intelligence for the Foreign Office, who also appears solo in Dead or Alive (1936) and Rolling Stone (1940) and collaborates with additional series characters, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Ernest Lamb and Sergeant Frank Abbott, in Pursuit of a Parcel (1942). Inspector Lamb and Sergeant Abbott headlined a further pair of mysteries, The Blind Side (1939) and Who Pays the Piper? (1940), before they became absorbed, beginning with Miss Silver Deals with Death (1943), into the burgeoning Miss Silver canon. Lamb would make his farewell appearance in 1955 in The Listening Eye, while Abbott would take his final bow in mystery fiction with Wentworth’s last published novel, The Girl in the Cellar (1961), which went into print the year of the author’s death at the age of 83.

The remaining two dozen Wentworth mysteries, from the fantastical The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith in 1923 to the intense legal drama Silence in Court in 1945, are, like the author’s series novels, highly imaginative and entertaining tales of mystery and adventure, told by a writer gifted with a consummate flair for storytelling. As one confirmed Patricia Wentworth mystery fiction addict, American Golden Age mystery writer Todd Downing, admiringly declared in the 1930s, “There’s something about Miss Wentworth’s yarns that is contagious.” This attractive new series of Patricia Wentworth reissues by Dean Street Press provides modern fans of vintage mystery a splendid opportunity to catch the Wentworth fever.

 

 

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE CLASSIC MYSTERY? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of WEEKEND WITH DEATH! (US entrants only, please.)

 

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