Grey Mask (1929) by Patricia Wentworth – another review

How the American public first encountered Grey Mask.

Review by Mary Grover (containing spoilers): Reading my first Patricia Wentworth, heralded as a writer from ‘the Golden Age of British Crime Fiction’ my expectations were overturned. Her first novel, Grey Mask 1928 lacks most of the features associated with the kind of titles recently republished by the British Library. Where are the closed communities, the contrast between the worthy but dull policeman and the reflective genius of the incoming sleuth? I have yet to discover how Wentworth’s subsequent 27 novels were to develop but her first, written of course at the dawn of the supposedly Golden Age owes more to Edgar Wallace than to Conan Doyle. Miss Silver, destined to take a more central role in her later novels, is clearly more analytical than the well-intentioned but impetuous young people caught up in a web of evil. Her machinations and deductions are not as central to the tale as the romance between the hero and heroine.

Grey Mask is a thrilling tale. The master criminal of the grey mask controls a vast network of henchmen and henchwomen, all recruited for their various skills and each given a number to rob them of their individual identity. Part of the puzzle is to unmask the identities concealed by the numbers: numbers which advertise the scale of the operation, and which accentuate the agents’ subordination to their unknown controller. Gradually, during the novel, the true identities of the network’s members are revealed, all of them with incriminating histories and many of them only recruited by blackmail. For the lucrative business of blackmail is the true source of Grey Mask’s power. Useful though the murderers and thugs are to the master mind, it is knowledge that is the source of his wealth.

In this respect the villain is an heir of Moriarty. He controls a web of influence and that web extends across Europe. So extensive is his power that he owns a property in Eastern Europe in which he isolates his wife when she discovers his hidden identity.

There is real skill in the way in which Wentworth plays with the doubts which arise about the true nature of the vast cast of characters that dive in and out of London’s fog-filled streets, glittering theatre foyers, luxurious department stores, mean lodging houses and grand Victorian mansions off the Great West Rd. The geography of London and its suburbs is important to the plot though what appears to be Ealing appears to be only minutes away from Bloomsbury: even on the Central Line, Holborn to Ealing is quite a stretch. So the sense of place is vivid but without the careful attention to distance and topography that are so often key to unriddling in Thirties’ crime fiction. But the effect is gloriously kaleidoscopic. Since the hapless victim of the villain’s current plot is an eighteen year old heiress (beautiful of course) who has grown up in a boarding school in Switzerland, she hasn’t a clue about the relation of one place to another. So she ricochets across London, with no map or compass, repeatedly fleeing from her pursuers and into the arms of her rescuers (one of whom turns out to be her supposedly dead but previously neglectful father). Her dimness is one of the running gags.

The true heroine of the book is also a victim, whose chance of love has been blighted four years before the opening of the novel. The cunning with which the villain has drawn her into his web of blackmailers is one of the best things about the book. The public persona of the master mind as a pitiful and bewildered English aristocrat makes his stepdaughter collude with activities that she believes he too has been tricked into supporting. The assumption of foolishness to conceal a degree of intelligence abnormal in an English aristocrat may owe something to Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. Margery Allingham develops this trope in the figure of her detective Campion. In Wentworth’s novel, this apparent haplessness is not simply a device used to conceal intelligence; it also forms the basis of the way in which the mastermind leads the heroine to collude with evil. The account of how he does this is one of the most subtle passages in a book that is in many ways a romp.

It took Patricia Wentworth nine years to revive the detective who was to be associated with her novels. Miss Maud Silver reappears in The Case is Closed, published in 1937. There are similarities with the first novel in that a romance is at its centre and the question of whodunnit feels secondary to the question of whether or not the headstrong heroine will rescind her rejection of the haughty hero. We know she already regrets her earlier dismissal of him when we meet her at the opening of the novel. They are flung together as Hilary embarks on a quest to prove the innocence of her cousin’s husband Geoffrey Grey. Grey has been convicted of killing his uncle over his uncle’s recent decision to disinherit him. The murder is very much in the mold of a locked room mystery. The door between the uncle and the servants in the house is indeed locked and the servants provide themselves with an alibi in the case of a deaf visitor and a church clock. The chief servant is an out and out villain but the master mind of the crime is a master of the false alibi and a flamboyantly deceptive wig. So the red-headed master mind does his wicked work in London but has witnesses to say that he has been eating breakfast in his room in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel at the time of the murder.

As in the earlier novel, the heroic young impress the reader with their passion, impetuosity and decency but it is Miss Maud Silver who steps in to protect them from disaster. She still doesn’t play a continuous part in the plot but is key at putting the pieces together so that the villain and his henchman are caught. The story is much more about family secrets than about international criminal networks. Much less Edgar Wallace and a little more Agatha Christie though much more rushing about.

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