It turns out that Heyer published 2 books in 1936 (a bonus for me this week). The Talisman Ring, covered in yesterdays post, and a contemporary detective novel, Behold, Here's Poison. I can't really argue with the general opinion that Heyer's detective fiction isn't in the same league as her historical novels, but they're still pretty good and probably deserve a bit more love than they've had.
To be fair Arrow have started reprinting these in smart new jackets - normally around Christmas and presumably thanks to the continuing enthusiasm for nostalgic Golden Age crime, so maybe they're getting a bit more love than I've noticed. There are 11 of these crime novels (one of which, Penhallow, is a bit of an outlier in terms of style) and I think it's a shame there aren't a few more. There might have been some level of collaboration with Heyer's husband, a barrister when she was writing these who apparently supplied some plot details, but I doubt his contribution was particularly significant.
The characters are pure Heyer, and very much part of her stock in trade. She also has a couple of mysteries (more thriller than murder) in her historical novels, including The Talisman Ring so the two strands of her writing are not so dissimilar. Behold, Here's Poison shares other things with The Talisman Ring too. Almost all the action takes place in a few interiors - a substantial house in a wealthy London suburb, Grinley Heath, and a smart London flat off St James, and there are the same very evocative descriptions of certain scenes.
The one thing I'd remembered really clearly about this book was it's opening. The under housemaid is taking tea up to the still sleeping household, and looks out of a window. She muses about the neighbours but mostly is thinking about the weather - it's going to be sunny and she has the afternoon off. It's a small thing but so very relatable.
Unfortunately her plans are ruined by finding the master of the house dead. Initially it looks like natural causes - his doctor is certainly ready to say so, but then his doctor also had reason to want him dead, and then Mister Matthews most forceful sister turns up and demands a post mortem. Unfortunately for another sister, a niece and nephew, their mother, an uncle, the doctor, and possibly others who had reason to want Mister Matthews gone, it was murder. Unfortunately for the police it's 5 days later and much of the possible evidence has been destroyed.
There is a smooth and very intelligent nephew who exists to annoy the rest of his family, whilst running his own parallel investigation to the police - he wants to preserve the family name if possible. He also becomes a slightly unlikely, but eventually oddly convincing love interest for Stella, Mister Matthews niece and one of the few more or less likable characters amongst the suspects.
Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a couple of quite generous reviews of Heyer's detective fiction. She notes that the plots aren't the best, but that the characterisation and humour are. The relations between two sisters and a sister in law are masterfully handled here. They might be caricatures but Heyer makes them live, or at least she does when it comes to showing how incompatible they are, so that even though they're not likable I still feel sympathy for them having to deal with each other.
There's an emphasis on dress as well, both male and female which is very Heyer, and also very 1930's. Reading these books makes me realise how much the ideal of masculinity has changed over the last 100 years. Intelligence and elegance seem to be the most important attributes a hero can have. I guess this says a bit about the preferences of the Queens of Crime too.
In short this is a satisfying mystery, the murder method is clever, Heyer's detective is likable (also very intelligent), there's plenty of her trademark humour and a few twists along the way. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance, her mysteries are a great place to start. They come with a slightly different set of expectations, and possibly a bit less genre prejudice attached to them.
Sounds fun! I've circled some of Heyer's crime fiction in the past but not read it. But I may have to give her work a go!ReplyDelete
Do! I'm not going to make any claims for them being great art, but they're solidly enjoyable and if you like them, you'll probably like the bulk of her work. I think her romances are more interesting for the way she presents her characters, but it's not a genre everyone feels enthusiastic about.Delete
I still have yet to read any of Heyer's mysteries but must remedy that! My complaint about the genre is that it usually lacks good characterisation and is humourless so clearly Heyer is the mystery writer for me.ReplyDelete
They're very Heyer, so I think you're on safe ground :)Delete
Ha, TWO Heyes, what a club perfect storm. Every single club, I vow to read one of her books... I know the detective novels are generally less well thought of, but this sounds very up my street.ReplyDelete
Not going to lie - you've made me very happy with 1936. The detective novels are fun, I wouldn't start with either Penhallow or The Unfinished Clue - but any of the other ones will be fun and very much what you would expect from a golden age mystery.Delete
This sounds like good fun. Oddly, the first of her detective fiction I started with was Penhallow but I ended up liking it a lot as a character study. I've picked up others after that and what I enjoy the most is the humour--so far I've read the Hemingway ones.ReplyDelete
It's ages since I've read Penhallow and I keep thinking I should dig it out and have another go at it. It would have been an interesting place to start as it's out of kilter with the mood of the rest of them and the more I think about it the more I think I'd like it more now.Delete
I'm reading the Spanish Bride which is so different from Georgette Heyer's usual Regency reads. Very historical, very detailed of the War and two characters of course taking a leading role.ReplyDelete
I loved that one in my teens, but haven't read it for ages. It was so good at bringing history to life.Delete
I liked this best of all the mysteries I read. I was surprised but then pleased by Randall. At first, I thought he was a lot like Basil Lavenham but someone else said he is more like Avon and I belatedly agree.ReplyDelete
Avon was the character I came up with eventually too. What I found interesting was seeing the same types transposed from her historical romances into modern dress - especially given that mystery and thriller elements appear in the Historical books and short stories as well. It also occurs to me that now that The Black Moth is 100 years old Heyer is close to being at the mid way point from when she was writing, to when she was writing, about and when we're reading (hope that makes sense).Delete