If you want to find Heyer in a bookshop chances are she'll be in romantic fiction which has never seemed particularly appropriate to me and even less so now when romantic fiction is generally somewhat more explicit than anything Heyer would have thought of writing. I've come to think of as much more an adventure stories for girls type if writer. Inspired by the Vulpes Libris Heyer week I thought I'd devote the weekend to rereading a favourite rather than struggling with how to write about a Patricia Highsmith without giving away to many spoilers.
Spoilers for a Heyer book aren't such an issue, partly because I assume that most people reading this will probably be familiar with her books already, but mostly because the joy is in the humour and detail of her work as much as it is the plot.
'The Unknown Ajax' is from reasonably late in her career when the quality can be a little bit patchy (the one thing I don't like about Heyer is when she goes over the top with contemporary slang) but this remains one of my favourites. I discovered Heyer when I was about 11 or 12 thanks to the suggestion of an excellent English teacher, devoured all her books in a mad binge over the next year or so, and reread them many times in my early teens. Over the years I've periodically turned to her for a comfortably entertaining read, and just as regularly been surprised by what I find.
My 12 year old self was more caught up in the romance - never sealed by anything more racy than a kiss, and only then at the very end - and took the rest for granted. 20 something me turned to these books in much the same frame if mind as I would an old black and white film on a Sunday afternoon. 40 year old me is delighted by the way that Heyer still stands up, though more aware of her class consciousness and ingrained snobbery.
There is a romance in 'The Unknown Ajax', it centres around the hero, Major Hugh Darracott - lately returned from the wars to find he's heir to a title, a falling down house, and all but bankrupt estates, and his cousin Anthea. None of the Darracott's can be convinced that Hugh, who they've refused to acknowledge/didn't know about isn't delighted by the prospect of joining their ranks. He for his part plans on escaping as soon as he can but finds himself increasingly taken with Anthea. She is a typical enough Heyer heroine, attractive, intelligent, capable, certainly aware of the restrictions placed on her by society and arguably slightly resentful of them, and fortunately gifted with a sense of humour. Hugh in turn is kind, honourable, trustworthy, and equally intelligent, as well as having that all important sense of humour. If nothing else an impressionable 12 year old can learn that mutual respect and shared humour are the bedrock of a good relationship. Beyond that there isn't much to say, there are some nice set piece exchanges between the pair and on Anthea's part a realisation that Hugh's presence is both comforting and disturbing in equal measure but she doesn't really figure that much in the story.
Instead what we have is a good old fashioned thriller type tale of smuggling. Anthea's brother, Richmond may be more involved than his family like to think, the family itself, held in thrall to a patriarch as autocratic as he is unreasonable are none of them very happy. The end result is an equal mix of genuine tension and farce as Hugh attempts to sort out a situation that could conceivably end with a hanging. Heyer is mistress of never quite overdoing it, everything is just feasible right down to the exciseman maintaining a strong suspicion that he's been had. Heyer might not be for everyone but if you think she's just a romance writer think again (though I admit the truly horrible cover on my copy does nothing to dispel the illusion).