45) Georgette Heyer – Footsteps in the Dark
One of Heyer’s mysteries, this one a stand-alone rather than part of a series. The Fortescue Siblings, Peter, Margaret and Celia, have inherited an old house which was built in part around the ancient priory it’s named after. They have come to spend a few weeks in it, along with Celia’s husband Charles Malcom and their aunt Lilian. But nobody has lived in the house for years, and it’s reputed to be haunted. Things do indeed start going bump in the night, and investigation finds priestholes and secret passages galore, some equipped with dry bones. But some of the party are more inclined to believe that the strange happenings are down to something much more prosaic than ghosts. Someone wants them out of the priory, probably the same someone who made an unsolicited offer to their solicitor to buy it when it wasn’t on the market. Someone who is prepared to kill to keep a secret when the hunt for clues leads to a potential witness to the real identity of the Monk.
While there’s a genuine and good murder mystery as the scaffolding of the story, a lot of the fun of this one is that it is indeed fun, with some sparkling dialogue between nicely drawn characters. I think the characterisation isn’t as strong in this one as in some of Heyer’s other mysteries, but it does the job.
There’s also a romance sub-plot, which cuts some of the tension because it’s obvious from the way the attraction between Margaret and one of the suspects is written that he’s going to be a Good Guy. But it doesn’t detract too much from the story, which is strong enough to offer pleasure in re-reading even once you know the solution.
17) Georgette Heyer – Detection Unlimited
Local solicitor Sampson Warrenby has not made himself well-liked in the village, not least because of his habit of trying to have a finger in every pie there is; even, or perhaps especially, if it means pushing others out of the way. The final inconvenience he causes is to be shot dead at a time and place that leaves ten people in the village firmly in the running for chief suspect. And as Chief Inspector Hemingway soon discovers, Warrenby made a habit of collecting embarrassing information that people would rather didn’t get out, so the absence of an obvious motive is not absence of motive.
There’s an entertaining mystery to be solved, but the real point of the book is the character studies. Various stereotypes of the English village are brought to vivid life here, from the country squire to the breeder of Pekes with ridiculous names to the village doctor out of his depth and not knowing it. Heyer takes the stereotypes and makes them people, people you can sympathise with even as you laugh at their foibles. And there’s plenty of occasion for laughter, as this is often a very funny book.
First of the Inspector Hemingway series of mysteries. Another of Heyer’s tales of murder amongst the wealthy in 1930s England, this one is seen primarily through the eyes of Mary, the younger cousin and ward of Wally Carter, a man who has married an extremely wealthy and somewhat vulgar widow. Ermyntrude was an actress before she married her first husband, and is inclined to histrionics at home, but is also a kind and generous woman who has offered Mary a permanent home and a position as her secretary. Mary is genuinely fond of “Auntie Erm”, and thus has little patience with Wally’s domestic misdemeanours, which include spending Erm’s money on gambling, drinking, dodgy business deals, and as it turns out, another woman.
There’s a large cast of characters, and a good third of the book is taken up with introducing them to the reader before Wally is shot dead in broad daylight in front of witnesses — but without anyone seeing the shooter. As usual, the characters are stock stereotypes who are brought to vivid and entertaining life by Heyer’s careful characterisation and witty dialogue, and there’s a thoroughly enjoyable story to be had out of watching the characters interacting even before we get down to the murder mystery itself. There are plenty of good suspects, and plenty of red herrings, and mixed in amongst them enough genuine clues to play fair to those who want to play the game. Great fun.
The fourth Superintendent Hannasyde book. Earnest Fletcher is found dead in his study, with a large dent in his head from a blunt instrument. On the surface he’s a well-liked and respected man, but it soon becomes apparent that his nephew and heir is not the only one with a possible motive for killing him. Unfortunately for Hannasyde, some of the people with motives are also his best witnesses, and some of them also have good reason to try to protect some of the other people with motives. He has a number of precise statements of the time of various events in the half hour leading up to the murder, most of which are not compatible and some of which are almost certainly true. It’s only after a second murder that he begins to suspect the truth…
I actually spotted the murderer straight off, which bothered me not at all, as part of the fun was trying to work out whether I was right. The story itself is great fun, with Heyer’s usual collection of sharply drawn characters, and her usual odd couple romance in the background.
Third of the Superintendent Hannasyde mysteries. Silas Kane is the senior male member of the Kane family, childless owner of the Kane family fortune. When he’s found dead at the foot of a cliff one morning’ his family are distressed, but most of them suspect nothing more than the obvious — he insisted on having his usual evening walk along the clifftop path in spite of it being a foggy night, and must have missed his way. But when his heir is found shot dead not long after moving into the family residence, Silas’s death takes on a more sinister aspect. And it’s not as if there’s a shortage of motives. A nice obvious one is that the other partners in Silas’s business wanted to go into a risky but potentially profitable deal, one that could only go ahead with a capital injection from Silas, which Silas wasn’t willing to give. And of course, Silas’s nephew and heir Clement needed the money he inherited, and Clement in turn has the next oldest cousin as his heir. Then there’s pure personal animosity as a motive for an eighty-year-old lady, of all people, to have committed one of the murders.
Hannaysde’s problem is that there are several good candidates for each murder, but anyone with good motive and means for one is a poor candidate for the other. If, of course, the death of Silas really was a murder and not just an unfortunate coincidence of an accident. And that’s before it becomes clear that someone is now targeting Clement’s heir.
I spotted the murderer fairly early on, when the second murder took place, although I didn’t work out how he’d done it. It took me a little longer to make the connection on what his true motive was. This is no criticism of the book, because Heyer kept me guessing almost to the end as to whether I was right. That’s just as much fun as not spotting the clues until near the end. And there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, with ample red herrings, a cast of characters large enough to provide plenty of character interaction without being too large to keep track of, and some sparkling dialogue.
Hannasyde is a recurring character, and there are references to earlier cases, but he’s actually something of a cypher in comparison with the one-off characters he encounters. There’s no real development of him as a character from book to book. Instead, what shines here are the character studies of the people caught in the backwash of murder. They’re often stereotypes or exaggerations, but still are nicely drawn caricatures of certain personality types, and the way they react to stress.
Great fun, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Country house murder mystery written and set in the early 1930s. Great fun, with an entertaining cast of suspects and some cunning red herrings.
Dinah Fawcett arrives at her married sister’s house for the weekend, only to find Fay’s household in turmoil. Fay’s stepson has arrived home with his fiancee, a famous and extremely flamboyant cabaret dancer from Mexico. Fay’s husband has taken this as well as you’d expect from a bullying martinet of a wealthy retired army officer. General Sir Arthur Billington-Smith has always despised his highly strung son, not least because years ago his mother ran away with another man.
This would be bad enough if there were just family present, but Sir Arthur has invited guests for the weekend, and naturally is now blaming Fay for their presence. There are other weekend guests too, some self-invited, others not. And then there are the neighbours who drop in, with or without an invitation…
Sir Arthur proceeds to give almost everyone staying in the house motivation for killing him, so it’s no surprise when he’s found dead in his study the next day, stabbed with his own paper knife. It’s up to Inspector Harding of Scotland Yard to sift through the assorted stories the potential suspects have to tell. Not an easy task, given the mix of attention-seeking and attention-avoiding to be found at the house party, as the various participants try to paint their own actions in the fashion most congenial to them.
Dinah takes charge of the household, being possessed of both common sense and an unimpeachable alibi. These two things also make her a useful source of information for Harding about the people at the house, even if he has to allow for her having a vested interest in protecting her sister. The novel is primarily told from Dinah and Harding’s viewpoints, and there’s a nice romance sub-plot in the background that adds to the story without being allowed to overwhelm the main mystery plot.
The book was written in the 1930s and it shows in the attitude to class and race, with some of the characters being very stereotypical; but Heyer also deftly uses assumptions in those stereotypes to lay false trails. And for all the stereotyping, there are some lovely characterisations here. If 1930s country house cosies are your thing, this is a stylish and witty example of the genre.