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.