Friday’s Forgotten Book: Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth

Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth (Lippincott, 1953) is the 23rd Miss Silver mystery and a surprisingly dark one it is. I didn’t know it was possible. Nearly every single character has something to hide, which is certainly unusual for this series. And the victim is utterly without redeeming value.

Three years before the story opens Carmona Leigh is engaged to marry Alan Field, the stepson of Carmona’s aunt Esther Field. Alan is a good-looking charmer who only wants what’s best for Alan but Carmona is smitten with him anyway. He leaves her waiting at the altar of the church without a word. The next day she receives a letter from him saying he is going to South America, and no one has heard from him since. In short order Carmona marries James Hardwick, who is good friends with the Trevors, one of Carmona’s trustees.

When the story opens, Carmona and James are entertaining friends and family at a large house he inherited. Out of the blue Alan Field walks into the gathering as if he has the right to be there and stuns everyone. He says he is responding to an advertisement for information about his father’s papers, which are being sought to help with a biography of the famous painter. In reality he is looking for money to fund the purchase of a horse farm in South America. To extort money from his stepmother, he threatens to publish private letters from his father that would prove embarrassing and damaging to the artist’s reputation. He points out to another guest that some of the letters are from her younger sister, who drowned years ago, implying the young girl had an improper relationship with the much older and married man. He threatens Carmona’s school friend with an expose of a relationship she had outside her marriage. He told Carmona the real reason he left her at the altar is that James Hardwick paid him to leave her alone and to leave the country. He has the nerve to drop in on a village girl he’d knowingly left pregnant. No one is exempt from his calculating contrivances.

In short, Field is a loathsome little tick, so when his murdered body turns up on a beach near the house, the question is not so much “Who did it?” as “What took so long?” Fortunately, Miss Silver is staying at a nearby boarding house with her niece, and Scotland Yard loses no time in consulting her. There is an abundance of suspects to choose from, perhaps more than normal in a Miss Silver story, but Inspector Frank Abbott and Miss Silver form an unstoppable crime-solving duo, as usual. I was sorry they identified the culprit; Field definitely fell into the “needed killing” category.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Shape of Fear by Hugh Pentecost

Currently investigating the Pierre Chambrun series by Hugh Pentecost. How have I missed these books? I vaguely recall reading some of the Julian Quist stories by Pentecost but have no memory of this series set in the luxury Hotel Beaumont in New York City. Pentecost is the pseudonym of Judson Pentecost Phillips, who has some 12 mystery series to his credit under one or the other name. He received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1973, which was certainly warranted for output alone, if nothing else.

The Chambrun books mirror the John Putnam Thatcher books by Emma Lathen in many ways. They span the same time period and they both offer ensemble casts of characters in large public-facing commercial organizations. Pentecost released 21 books and one collection of short stories in the series between 1962 and 1988. Thatcher and the staff of the Sloan Guaranty Trust first appeared in 1961 for a total of 24 books. I did not notice the scathing Lathen wit in the Chambrun books I’ve read so far but the plotting, dialog, and characterization are excellent.

The Shape of Fear (Dodd Mead, 1964) is the second book. The story is told from the perspective of the hotel’s new public relations director. Questions from a recent addition to the staff is a great way to justify detailed descriptions of setting and personnel roles and personalities, clever device.

As the book opens, Mark Haskell, the new PR director, has a potential bombshell tossed into his lap, how to seat three individuals at war with each other at an important international political dinner. Two of the three automatically warrant places at the head table because of their position; the international guest of honor has requested the third also sit there as his guest. The three cannot be expected to get through the event without some sort of eruption. Mr. Murray Cardew, the hotel’s long-term resident and expert on social behavior and protocol, was called in to consult on the conundrum. Later in the evening Cardew calls Haskell and asks him urgently to come to his room. Haskell is delayed a few minutes and when he arrives, find Cardew dead of an obvious head injury. Hotel manager Chambrun and the staff are shattered, as the victim was genuinely loved and admired.

Some probing police interviews reveal the suspicion that the hotel is unwittingly being used in the movement of heroin into the country; everyone supposes Cardew saw or heard something about it, which led to his death. Between the political conspiracies that surround the international guest of honor and the suggestion of drugs in his hotel, Chambrun is furious. Add the local police and representatives of the federal narcotics force who are in and out and a movie star who demands constant attention, and the hotel is seething with tension and worry. A completely unexpected development at the very end wraps it all up smoothly and surprisingly.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Funeral of Figaro by Ellis Peters

I am always a pushover for mysteries set in the theatre, and here’s another one. Funeral of Figaro by Ellis Peters (Morrow, 1964) is one of the few nonseries books released by Peters, best known for her Brother Cadfael historical mysteries. It is built around the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro, which is part of the Mozart series the Leander Theatre in London is presenting that season. The original lead for the opera was killed in a plane crash, and it is sheer luck that the Leander was able to book the world’s best-known Figaro, Marc Chatrier, who was suddenly at loose ends due to a last-minute cancellation.

Rehearsals are going well and everyone is convinced the production will be outstanding. Chatrier is the consummate professional but his arrival has set the cast and the staff on edge without anyone understanding why. Johnny Truscott, the owner of the Leander, is convinced he recognizes Chatrier but can’t think from where. In the midst of this general tension, Johnny’s daughter Hero, who plays the role of the page, decides to use Chatrier to make the up-and-coming young baritone playing the count notice her. Chatrier is all too happy to oblige; Hero is an only child and stands to inherit her father’s millions. Chatrier sees a comfortable retirement haven for himself. Johnny is well aware of Chatrier’s conniving, and blistering confrontations between Chatrier and Johnny, between Hero and Johnny, and between Hero and the young baritone result.

Despite the personal strains, opening night launches flawlessly. The cast and musicians deliver a world-class performance until the fourth act, when the body of Chatrier as Figaro is discovered on the stage with a dress rapier plunged into his back.

Inspector Musgrave, who was in the audience, takes over the homicide investigation. He is not a sympathetic character, as he is an opera buff and has many criticisms of the theatre’s casting decisions, staging, music, etc. He actually has the temerity to state he prefers Wagner to Mozart to the horror of all who hear him. He haunts the theatre early and late without ever saying what he is looking for, and the staff grow to dread seeing him. Matters come to a head when one of the staff attempts to kill the inspector.

An intriguing plot, not at all a police procedural. Inspector Musgrave is something of a jerk, unusually enough. I found myself rooting for the cast and the staff of the Leander. Any reader unfamiliar with the casting and production of The Marriage of Figaro will find the book an excellent primer.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert

The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert (Hodder & Stoughton, 1960), later released as The Family Tomb, is one of Gilbert’s stand-alone mysteries. There actually isn’t much mystery to it but there are some great characters to help the obvious plot unfold. Robert Broke has taken refuge in Florence, after the death of his wife and child in an auto accident. He runs a high-end bookstore and largely stays to himself, despite the attempts of the expatriate community to involve him in their social gatherings.

He breaks this habit to attend a party at the villa of Professor Bruno Bronzini, an eccentric who is sponsoring the excavation of an Etruscan burial site on his property and who is a known dealer in Etruscan antiquities. Broke is something of an authority himself on some aspects of the Etruscans, and the professor invites him to visit the excavation site, where he sees a number of gold and alabaster artifacts that he asks a few questions about but doesn’t get satisfactory answers.

A few days later the elderly craftsman whose daughter helps run the bookstore asks to talk to Robert but never gets past idle chitchat as he is convinced someone is listening to their conversation. Soon after the elderly gentleman is found dead in the street, clearly the victim of a hit and run, and Robert’s car has damage in all of the right places so he is arrested without much evidence. Neither Robert nor the daughter have learned what the victim was worried about and they both assume it had something to do with his death, but the police are not interested. Robert’s friends flock to his defense while Robert sits in his cell reading. The real question of the book is how they will get him out of jail.

The book is full of well-drawn characters. The offbeat professor, the doyenne of the Florence expatriates, Robert’s imperious sister who arrives to help him, the sneaky boarder who rents a room from the elderly craftsman, the craftsman’s wife. Even the two mystery men whom everyone assumes are from Sicily are clearly outlined. I was disappointed in the minimal plot but still found the story a worthwhile read.