“The Silversmith’s Wife” starts with the night watchman finding the silversmith’s body, the cut throat the cause of death. This being 1792, there is no attempt to detect who committed the murder. The story then follows the silversmith’s widow as she tries to deal with the consequences of her husband’s murder with extracts from the silversmith’s diary whilst still giving readers the opportunity to piece together what happened and work out who the murderer was.
The silversmith, Pierre Renard, is an ambitious Frenchman, keenly aware of his outsider status and desperate to be seen as a gentleman. Although he is a capable silversmith, he outsources most of his work to others so that he can focus on the sales side of his business. It pleases him that he can count the local doctor as a friend and the wealthy Chichesters as his best clients, but he is disappointed in his wife. He doesn’t understand her grief over her younger disabled brother’s death and, if he’d had his way, would have prevented the boy attending their wedding. Mary’s apparent inability to give him children, particularly a son, leads him to offer an apprenticeship to the son of an old flame. However, all the apprentice does is remind Renard of what might have been because he cannot see that Mary’s apparent inability to have children when her sister has several might well indicate the problem lies with him or the marriage itself.
Mary meanwhile discovers her late husband’s will left his silversmith business to his apprentice with no guarantee she’ll able to stay in their house. Dr Taylor advises that it’s in her best interest to marry again and even suggests a client or a subcontractor as suitable suitors. Mary is both bereft and relieved that her controlling, spiteful husband is no longer with her. She feels Dr Taylor’s insistence at treating her as vulnerable and his haste that she remarry is indecent. One of Renard’s subcontractors has a brother, Alban Steele, whom Mary had met before her marriage to Renard. Steele had carried a torch for Mary but shyness prevented him from acting on it. Now he has a second chance. When Dr Taylor unwittingly asks Steele to help manage the shop because the apprentice is still too inexperienced, he has chance to get to know Mary better.
The night watchman who discovered Renard’s body is paid by a nearby resident to try and find out who the murderer was. The resident is concerned that his wayward son might be involved. The night watchman’s interest enables readers to find out more about the Chichesters. Mr Chichester inherited his fortune whilst still very young and married a beautiful, doll-like wife, Harriet, whose mother pushed her into an early marriage. Renard was commissioned to design and make their silverware which Mr Chichester desired to make worthy of an heirloom to pass down to his own heirs. Renard, however, frequently visits when Mr Chichester is out so spends more time with Harriet. Harriet’s subsequent pregnancy reveals the rifts in her own marriage. Her husband, unable to reveal his true sexual orientation, knows the child is not his. Renard’s diary shows that he was hoping to persuade Harriet to leave her husband and, when she did, he was going to poison Mary with drugs already bought from the apothecary, leaving him free to remarry and gain from Harriet’s family’s wealth.
It’s only when Alban Steele who has been trying to tidy up the shop, workshop and storerooms, finds Renard’s diary that the actual murderer is revealed.
Each character is sympathetically drawn. Sophia Tobin shows that both men and women were constrained by the culture and customs of the times. Despite initially coming across as feebled and compliant through grief, Mary comes to demonstrate resourcefulness and a sense of business acumen. It’s easy to see that the calm, steady Alban Steele is her soulmate but Renard’s initial approaches to her promised care and attention and even fooled her family into thinking he was a suitable match. Mr Chichester is as trapped as his wife is. If he allows it to be revealed that his wife’s baby is not his, he risks scandal, becoming an outcast and his reputation in ruins. On the other hand, the baby is a son and heir and he is released from the need to produce children. Renard is slippery and unpredictable with, as his name suggests, a fox-like cunning. He can keep secrets when it profits him, but it doesn’t profit him to keep the Chichesters’ secret. Mr Chichester is not the only client with a motive. Mary’s run of suitors on becoming a widow suggests that Renard didn’t snuff out her attractiveness.
The historical detail is lightly handled and very much part of the story. The story wouldn’t work in a time when divorce and homosexuality are not scandalous and forensics would have make short work of identifying a killer who didn’t have to worry about bloodstains or concealing a murder weapon. Equally, the characters aren’t modern day people dumped in a period setting, they are born in and carry the attitudes of their time. “The Silversmith’s Wife” is a conventional, deftly written whodunit with an unconventional and novel telling.
By Emma Lee