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Mystery writer # 8: Georgette Heyer

I have been a fan of Heyer’s historical novels ever since I discovered her some years ago. When I found out that she also wrote mysteries, I decided I had to read those as well. As this is a change of both genre and era, I think I’m justified in including her in the challenge. I read two of her mysteries back to back and have started reading a third. I will review the books separately, because they are so different that they could have been written by two different authors.

Titles: Death in the Stocks (alternative title: Merely Murder) and Footsteps in the Dark
No. in series: 1, non-series
Published: 1935 & 1932
Settings & time: London (mostly), 1930's; country manor and small village, 1930's.
Type of mystery: Murder; pseudo-supernatural + murder
Type of investigators: police and amateur sleuths

Death in the Stocks begins when a village constable on his way home from making his night time rounds finds the corpse of a well-dressed man in the stocks that are on display in the village square. The man has been murdered. Scotland Yard are called in on the case, and Heyer’s series detective, Superintendent Hannasyde, makes his first appearance. Suspicion soon falls on the dead man’s half-siblings, especially his brother who is heir to his considerable fortune. What follows is a black comedy, almost a satire, that pokes fun at the mystery genre, as well as the characters themselves.

The mystery itself is - I can’t call it weak because it does keep you in some doubt to the end, but I did suspect one person right from the moment they appeared, and I turned out to be right. I guess unexceptional is the word I want. There is nothing that makes it a great mystery. Mostly, this is a black comedy, very much character driven. The Verenders, the dead man’s siblings, are prime examples of the completely self-absorbed characters Heyer writes so well in her historical novels. They are selfish, rude and childish, don’t give a hoot about any social conventions, and present a considerable puzzle to Hannasyde. The only normal member of the family is their cousin, the family attorney, who is instrumental in solving the case. The book is mostly dialogue, something Heyer does very well, and you are rarely in any doubt as to who is speaking, since she carefully gives each character their own speech patterns and way of expressing themselves. Here is a flippant conversation that is typical for the dialogue in the book. Kenneth and Antonia are the selfish siblings, Giles their normal cousin, and Rudolph Mesurier is Antonia’s boyfriend.

Footsteps in the Dark, Heyer’s first published detective novel, is a country house mystery. Three siblings inherit a rambling old country house, once a priory. Accompanied by one sister’s husband and an old aunt, they go there to spend their summer holidays. Before long, the unmarried sister has made the acquaintance of a young man whom she rather fancies, but whom her brother and brother-in-law think is more than a little mysterious. Stories are told in the nearby village of a monk that supposedly haunts the place, and mysterious noises are heard at night. The men are reluctant to believe in the ghost, and come to the conclusion that someone wants them out of the house. But why?

Unlike Death in the Stocks, the characters in this story are perfectly normal, respectable people, and although there is considerable dialogue, it does not dominate the story. The story itself is plot driven, and could just as well be called a thriller as a mystery. The possibility that the ghost could be real is never strictly denied, and much of the action takes place after dark, which is why it reminded me of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. It has the same kind of spooky, claustrophobic atmosphere, and like in Rinehart’s story, we know that if the ghost isn’t real, then he is a flesh and blood person trying to hide something.
My main complaint about the plot is mostly that there are so few people to suspect that it was quite easy to decide who the villains were, and had I bothered to sit down and ponder the plot about half-way through, I am sure I could have worked out their motives as well. From this it may be seen that Heyer plays perfectly by the “equal opportunity” rule of mystery writing, laying every fact known to the focus characters before the reader. The joy is mostly in the unfolding of the plot, the how rather than the why of it.
I must mention one scene that perfectly shows Heyer’s genius for comedy: the old aunt, convinced that the ghost is real, brings out a planchette (a board on casters used for unconscious writing and messages from the dead), and conducts a séance in the living room, with very funny results.
Here is a short excerpt from early in the story when the villains are still trying to use scare tactics to drive the protagonists off.

Being a romance writer, Heyer obviously couldn’t resist writing romance into both stories, which is strictly speaking a breach of one of the rules of detective story writing as set out by S.S. van Dine (I may write a bit about this later on), but much less heinous than the one committed by Arthur Upfield in the Bony books I reviewed earlier (keeping clues from the reader). While I agree with van Dine that a mystery is a mystery and a romance is a romance, I have seen authors break this “rule” with impunity and still produce good mysteries. R. Austin Freeman does it very well, often with one partner in the place of key witness, potential victim, or accused, and the other as secondary investigator.

The book I’m reading now is the second in the Hannasyde series, Behold, Here’s Poison, and while it is also a country house mystery, it promises to be more in the style of Agatha Christie.

Rating: Two very different but equally enjoyable mysteries. 3 stars.

Here's a link to my reviews of several of Heyer's historical novels. I apologise for the weird symbols scattered throughout the text - apparently Geocities doesn't like apostrophes.


Maxine Clarke said…
Hello, you have reminded me that I read all Heyer's detective stories when I was 18 or 19 -- about 100 years ago in other words. I do not remember a lot about them except, like you, I associate them with the Agatha Christie formula.

Re. what you say about Arthur Upfield, I did not think of this when I read your review, but a book by Laura Lippman. "Every Secret Thing" I recently read (and posted about on Petrona at seemed to do just the same thing. The solution to the "mystery" depended on the reader not being told about a conversation between two of the characters. I thought that was cheating. The book got very good write-ups by all the mystery reviewers. Lippman also has her own blog, a proper one not just one of those promotional ones.
I'd be interested to know what you make of that Laura Lippman book if it is on your list.
Anonymous said…
Love the blog!

This is a little off-topic, but I’m hoping to tap into your expertise...

An acquaintance recently described a "great mystery writer" who has a series set in China. She couldn't remember the author’s name (“Starts with a ‘P’ I think…”), but raved about the quality of the writing. Do you have any idea who this writer might be?
Bibliophile said…
Thank you.

The only mystery series I am familiar with that is set in China is Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries, set in ancient China (and on my reading list). I'll post your question on my reading forum and see what comes of it. Please check back in a few days.
Bibliophile said…
Here is what I found out about mystery series set in China:

Check out the rest of the site - it's a great resource for mystery fans.

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