In The Key by Patricia Wentworth, it is 1944, and the German- Jewish scientist Michael Harsch is working hard to complete his special secret weapon to win the war. Just as he announces that it is completed and makes an appointment to hand it over to a British government official, he decides to go to the church to play the organ, his method of relaxing. After all, with the completion of Harschite, the death of his wife and daughter five years earlier at Nazi hands is weighing on him. When Harsch hasn’t returned home late that night, Janice Mead, the secretary of Professor Evan Maddock, who sometimes helps Garsch, goes to check on him, only to find him dead of a gunshot with a gun lying six inches from his hand.
The jury at the inquest returns a verdict of death by suicide. However, Maj. Garth Albany, the government’s representative to Harsch and the nephew of Sophie Fell, who lives next to the church, who went to the small town of Bourne incognito, doesn’t believe that Harsch did not commit suicide and calls in Scotland Yard in the persons of Sergeant Frank Abbott and Detective Lamb. When they make an arrest, the locals decide something has to be done, so they call in Miss Maud Silver, spinster and private investigator.
The Key refers to the fact that only four keys to the church exist, but the one belonging to Garth Albany’s Aunt Sophie Fell was gone during the night. This title sets up the premise of the confusion over which character has the opportunity to get into the church, especially amid the various people seen in the area of the church that night. The rest of the plot deals with concerns of the Nazi party and its supporters in secret in England. It also deals with issues of strong pacifism that existed during the war. I found the whole plot to be of real interest.
The characters in The Key do a lot to make this book successful. Miss Silver is the ideal retired governess who is full of her knitting, leaving her with a cover in which she doesn’t even have to disguise herself. Yet she doesn’t make her first entrance until the second half of the book. However, we connect to the other characters, in particular Garth Albany, the nephew of Sophie Fell, and Janice Meade, secretary to Professor Maddock. This pair has known each other most of their lives, but being older, Garth did not pay attention to Janice until they were both fully grown up this visit. One other character I really appreciated was Cyril, a boy sent from London to the countryside to avoid the Blitz. He would climb out of his window at night and climb down a tree, proving to become an important witness. His poking around ultimately helps to save the day.
The Key has a lot of flavor of life during World War II. We see people discussing eggs as something really crucial to their lives. They eat powdered eggs, and Cyril boasts that the chicken where he lives is such a great layer that he gets egg two breakfasts a week. It’s owner boasts that his hen lays so well because he keeps his on a routine. The gardens that they all grow serve to feed them during rationing, which we see when Garth gives his ration book to his aunt, so she can get some meat for the house. Another detail of World War II that we see is that of child evacuees sent away from London in order to stay safe from the Blitz. Besides seeing Cyril as one of the evacuees, we also see the neighbors discussing how glad they are not to have had to take in a child, reflecting the Us vs. Them mentality held by the country people towards the children, who have different types of speech and mannerisms than that of the people in the countryside. The final element from the civilian war years that I noticed was the way everyone had to save every scrap of paper or metal and dilute the tea. One man even complains that it’s really hard to get drunk now, that the alcohol is diluted too.
Diana Bishop performs the audio edition of this book, sounding so realistically as I picture Miss Silver as sounding. Bishop performs the various characters effectively, but it is in her voicing of Miss Silver that she seems most immersed in the book. We easily see the capability of Miss Silver, yet her disguise in the role of a harmless little old lady, complete with all her knitting demonstrates her full capability all the more.
I really enjoyed The Key from the moment it began. It begins with a dramatic moment and continues on with more excitement. I really like the characters and especially the World War II setting in the English countryside. I give this book five stars.
To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.