Chain of Witnesses: The Cases of Miss Phipps (2014) – Phyllis Bentley

Review by George S: As well as her historical novels set in Yorkshire, Phyllis Bentley had a less well-known sideline writing detective stories. This is a collection of her short stories featuring novelist-detective Miss Phipps. The book was published in 2014; previously, the stories had only appeared in magazines.

The earliest were published in British magazines in the late thirties and forties. In the fifties they were reprinted in the American Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, edited by Frederic Dannay, half of the the two-man team who together wrote the Ellery Queen detective novels (the other half was Manfred B. Lee). This magazine specialised in detective stories that were puzzles more than thrillers, and published several of the British ‘Golden Age’ detective writers, such as Marjory Allingham and Agatha Christie. It was also published some literary big names like Graham Greene, and was the first English language magazine to print a story by Jorge Luis Borges.
Miss Phipps is a novelist, and the reader is left to assume that she is the author’s self-portrait, or maybe self-caricature. She has bushy white hair and wears old-fashioned pince-nez. In the first of the stories, she is on a train facing a large young man who turns out to be Detective-Sergeant Tarrant of the Southshire police. He is puzzling about a murder case that seems to have no logical answer. Miss Phipps applies her novelist’s imagination to the situation. She considers a solution to the case as an exercise in story-telling, and tells the policeman:

‘My dear boy, […] I beg you not to take my criticism unkindly. But if you will allow me to say so, you’re making a great mistake. You’re applying too much attention to the mechanics of your plot – bulbs and strings and siphons – and neglecting the human element, your characterisation.’

By this method she deduces that the victim was not the intended one, and so is able to supply a credible motive where none had existed before.
The other early stories are mostly on the same pattern. The policeman, now promoted to Detective-Inspector, asks her opinion about puzzling cases, and she, in classic armchair-detective fashion, notices what he has failed to spot, and, because she has the mind of a novelist, can create a story that fits all of the puzzling facts.
These early stories tell us what Phyllis Bentley thought a novelist should be: someone gets at the truth of life through her sympathetic understanding of character. In several of them she is pleased to be able to discover that either no crime has been committed, or that a sympathetic character faced with overwhelming evidence is in fact not guilty. (She follows true to 1930s form in usually making the actual villains either men who are social outsiders, or women who wear too much make-up.)
The later stories, from the 1950s, are slightly different. Miss Phipps is no longer consulted by Inspector Tarrant – in fact, in a couple of the stories, he tells her to keep away. The pattern of these stories is that Miss Phipps goes somewhere – to a boarding school to give a lecture, to Stratford-upon Avon to see a play, to the seaside for a holiday, to New England to stay with her American publisher, to a film set to see a film being made of one of her novels – and while she is there, something happens that arouses her detective instincts. Sometimes it is a murder, but in ‘Miss Phipps goes to the Hairdresser’, for example, it is just a marital misunderstanding; she is able to show that a nice woman is not being unfaithful to her husband (and that an over-made-up one is being nasty).
In the early stories Miss Phipps was simply a novelist, with the implication that her books were not crime stories but novels about domestic or romantic struggles. In the later stories she is definitely a detective novelist. Maybe this change is to fit in with the tone of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which was interested in the theory and practice of detective fiction, and published several notable essays on the subject. One of the best stories in the book is ‘Miss Phipps Improvises’, in which Miss Phipps explains to Mary (Inspector Tarrant’s wife) how to construct a detective story. She explains:

‘The best way to create suspense in a detective story,’ declared Miss Phipps, is to employ two characters, each of whose integrity appears to vary inversely with that of the other.’

She then improvises a story in which A and B (or Arthur and Bob), both sympathetic characters, apparently have motive and opportunity for a murder. She shows how the writer can tip the scales of probability first in favour of A’s being the culprit, and then B. Finally, of course, she produces a solution that clearly proves neither of them did it, but a minor character who has hitherto existed unsuspected on the fringes of the narrative.
Phyllis Bentley is one of the writers who acknowledge that detective stories are games that the author plays with the reader. Sometimes she makes playful references to the detective story form:

‘If I used a coincidence like this in a story, Ellery Queen would never swallow it,’ thought Miss Phipps. ‘But in real life such things are always happening.’

She likes playing games with the reader; ‘Miss Phipps Discovers America’, for example,  recounts Miss Phipps’s conversation with ‘the murderer’ while leaving us to guess (until almost the last moment) who this murderer might be.
I greatly enjoyed this collection of stories. Perhaps I would have enjoyed them even more as occasional pleasures in a magazine;  if I hadn’t been reviewing them I’d have left the book by my bedside for dipping into when I was in the mood. Reading sixteen of the stories straight off made one aware of a certain repetitiveness, and in the later stories I started thinking: ‘Surely the old girl can’t come across a murder mystery every time she goes on holiday!’
Despite this, the book is very definitely recommended.

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