Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Favorites - Georgette Heyer's Mysteries

Georgette Heyer doesn't quite rise to the level of "favorite" mystery author, but after reading three of her mysteries, I can say that she's definitely on my reliable list.

Heyer is famous for her Regency romances, of course, but the mysteries were contemporary to the time they were written (mostly 1930s and early 40's, but there were a couple that cropped up a decade later in the 50s.) They're all "manor house" mysteries -- puzzlers taking place among England's idle, or semi-idle class. Very much the kind of scenario you imagine playing Clue -- was it Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the Candlestick?

The biggest problem I have with her writing is that she introduces us to a huge crowd of characters with similar names right off the bat. She does a good job of differentiating their _characters_ (which are usually a bit caricatured and flat, but still entertaining) but a few pages later you can't remember whether Figton Newby is the lawyer who is in love with Heather Mushingham, or if that's Stanton Biggby who's in love with Saffron Billingham. (And does "Miss Mushingham" refer to Heather, or is that her aunt?)

This sorts itself out after a couple of chapters, but I now don't start a Heyer mystery without a notepad.

Behold, Here's Poison is my favorite so far. It didn't start out that way: the characters are not very likeable, or at least they seem like they aren't. Most of them were under the domineering thumb of the victim, and they're kind of whiney and defensive, and prone to squabble. It perks up as soon as the chief antagonist shows up -- a cousin who is now "head of the family" and who is described as an amiable snake. Think Oscar Wilde as a master villain. He benefits most from the crime, he has a perfect alibi, and everybody, including the police would like to nail him.

But he also has this oddly beneficent effect on the story in that he, temporarily at least, often unites the bickering parties. The story itself plays on a hidden theme of amiability, and social poison, and all that.

The puzzle is fun, though the ultimate solution isn't memorable, the revealing of the situation surrounding it, and the little solutions along the way, make it worth it. The police characters are not so memorable, but they grow on you, and the story perks up particularly well when in Inspector Hannasyde's point of view.

Because the cluing is kind of interesting, I might do a little discussion of the big and small secrets in the story on the Spoilers blog. (I'll post a link here if I do.)

See you in the funny papers.


Anne R. Allen said...

Thank you for this post, Camille! I had no idea Georgette Heyer wrote mysteries. I read many of her regencies in my youth, but it looks as if I have some more of her books to look forward to!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I've read some of Heyer's mysteries too. I really liked some, but with others, I had a bit of a hard time enjoying them because the characters were just a pretty nasty, unlikeable bunch. My favorite is They Found Him Dead - not because it's the best mystery; it was actually one of the easiest to figure out - but that one had several really fun characters that kept me laughing and enjoying their conversations through the whole book. On the other hand, Envious Casca had one of the neatest vital clues, but probably the most unpleasant country-house party ever.

I notice there's a kind of pattern with her mysteries - there's usually a sensible female character who has a solid alibi and is generally above suspicion, who sort of helps out with the investigation.

The Daring Novelist said...

I've only read three so far, and I haven't read any of her romances (so I can't testify as to the relative unlikeableness among characters).

"Why Shoot A Butler?" and "Detection Unlimited" didn't seem to have particularly dislikeable characters. (Detection Unlimited, though, was particularly bad for keeping the characters straight.)

Lori said...

Behold! Here's Poison is my favorite as well. Randall Matthews is such a great character.