Crime Scene: Jean Bedford on Georgette Heyer’s crime novels
‘[Heyer is] a superlatively good writer of honourable escape.’ A S Byatt
As a teenager, I devoured all of Georgette Heyer’s historical novels. These Old Shades and Powder and Patch have to remain among the best historical romances ever written, and Heyer is enjoying a public revival at present with a new biography published in 2011 (Georgette Heyer: biography of a best-seller, Jennifer Kloester) and a Georgette Heyer conference in Sydney in February 2012.
What is less well-known is that she also wrote crime fiction, publishing 12 clue-puzzle mysteries between 1932 and 1953. Her continuing popularity mostly resides in her Regency novels and, like Patricia Wentworth, she seldom gets much of a mention in discussions of the Golden Age of detective fiction, which was dominated by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, from the 1920s to post-World War 2.
Perhaps this is because of her limited output compared to the ‘queens of the Golden Age’. Allingham published 37 crime novels in her lifetime, plus several published posthumously and three under the pseudonym Maxwell March; Sayers published 17 Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, several short story collections and contributed to eight other crime novels; Marsh wrote 32 crime novels and Christie published 66 mysteries featuring Poirot or Miss Marple, 14 short story collections, several Tommy and Tuppence Beresford espionage/crime novels and stories, as well as six novels writing as Mary Westmacott. It was certainly also because Heyer was too well-known as the ‘queen of Regency’ – genre change is difficult for writers already established in one area and Allingham and Christie both used pseudonyms when they attempted it.
In her historical novels, Heyer took the world of Jane Austen’s fiction – the Regency – for her model. It is that ‘historical’ world, contemporary to Austen, but researched by Heyer, that she constantly recreated, and it is Austen’s character types that she emulated, with a bit of Byron and Bronte thrown in.
She brings these familiar Regency characters into the early 20th-century world of detective fiction with a few token, but telling, gestures to her own life and times. The young women dress like the post-flapper generation, they smoke, swear (mildly), wear makeup and drive fast cars as well as imbibe surprisingly many cocktails, but underneath the ‘décor’ (one of her policeman Hemingway’s favourite words) are the familiar Heyer characters: the sarcastic, Byronic, possibly Asperger’s man (like Mr D’Arcy), withdrawn and solitary, who may turn out to be the hero or the villain, depending on the plot; the pretty ninny; the intelligent ‘governessy’ heroine; the scatty matriarch who beneath her vague ditziness is as sharp as they come; the alpha male, masterful and good at everything; the fop who reveals unexpected strengths; the gold-digger; the resourceful and independent heroine; the worthy, dependable chap; the tomboyish hoyden; the bluff country gentleman and so on, and her characters retain a lot of the humour and charm of their prototypes in Austen. They sit comfortably in this new fantasy world of crime and mystery and their endurance as ‘types’ is part of the attractiveness of the books.
At their best, Heyer’s plots equal Christie’s, and her pace, characters and settings are reminiscent of Allingham and Sayers. They are charming period pieces for the 21st-century reader if you can put aside the occasional slight sexism, the occasional offensive racism and the always-present class-consciousness – attributes that exist in most of the Golden Age writings at least until World War 2, when Jews, at least, became less stereotyped in fiction. (As a side issue it’s interesting to see the gradual lessening of Christie’s racism after her marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930, when we can assume a more sophisticated way of looking at the world was opened to her.)
Between the wars was a time of lost grandeur for some of the upper classes and minor aristocracy, but still one of comparative luxury to the present-day reader. An impoverished upper-class lady might only have two indoor servants and one chap to do the grounds (Christie’s Miss Marple has a maid and a jobbing gardener). A squire might have to sell off some of his land or timber or allow a commercial quarry to mine his property. A young independent woman might only be able to afford a ‘daily’ to do her housework while she swanned about at a part-time job in an art gallery or at cocktail parties waiting to meet Mr Right or to inherit a fortune. There were the genteel poor, of course, who eked out their lives in boarding houses or as underpaid companions, but their world was not very glamorous and as characters they tended to remain on the sidelines.
Golden Age clue-puzzles (‘cosies’ to hardboiled fans) either dealt with the gifted amateur detective, following Conan Doyle’s example – Miss Marple (a semi-professional who does get free board and lodging and expenses for her trouble) Allingham’s Albert Campion and Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey – or with the particularly talented professional like Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, a retired governess needing to make a living, Ngaio Marsh’s CID detective, Roderick Alleyn or Christie’s Poirot, a Belgian ex-policeman refugee. They tended to take place in the social context of the upper-middle-class, the landed gentry or the minor aristocracy. Often they were set in villages or other enclosed spaces like stately homes, islands, ships, trains, archaeological digs, etcetera. There was a contained group of possible suspects, eliminated one by one; there were red herrings and complications; clues scattered throughout the stories encouraged the reader to work out the mystery alongside the detective and there was usually a surprising denouement when the detective brought all the threads together and announced the solution. The mystery and the puzzle were all-important, outweighing questions of characterisation, and so these stories were plot-dominated by necessity. The plots needed to be strong and the unravelling of the clues needed to be convincing – and fair; no sudden ring-ins, or vital information revealed too late. The pleasure for readers of this genre is partly in seeing how the writer has tricked us into ignoring some clues or placing too much weight on others. When we get to the end of one of these novels, we want to be able to say, ‘Of course! I should have seen that.’
Most of Heyer’s crime novels fit the criteria for this model admirably. Several of them employ one-off amateur detectives, people drawn into investigating the crime through coincidence or propinquity; others employ her serial police detectives Chief Inspector Hannasyde and Superintendent Hemingway (superintendent and sergeant, respectively, when we first meet them), who are solidly lower-middle-class, but also slightly eccentric, ironical and very good at their jobs. They are not gentleman policemen like Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, or cosmopolitan, like Poirot, but more like the protagonists in later police procedurals – consummate professionals who follow up every scrap of evidence until they get their man (or woman).
Her first crime novel, Footsteps in the Dark (1932), is perhaps her weakest in terms of plot and Heyer herself argued against it being reprinted. It’s a grown-up Girl’s Own gothic mystery, complete with a haunted house, a ruined priory, secret tunnels, hidden doors, priestholes and ominous noises in the night. But, as with all her work, what makes this still readable and still enjoyable is the quality of her writing, her wit and light touch, and the clever and charming interactions of her characters.
A Blunt Instrument (1933) is one of the best plotted, with a surprise ending that has been carefully orchestrated from the beginning, in the best tradition of Agatha Christie. It’s unfortunately marred by the increasingly absurd utterances of the village constable, a major God-botherer who wouldn’t have got away with such behaviour in any police force, then or now, so some suspension of disbelief is unfortunately lost. But again, it is the light touch of the writing, the wit and the interplay of characters, as well as the clever plot, that make this well worth reading:
‘… The question is, can they collect the evidence?’
Neville opened his eyes, and looked at her in undisguised horror. ‘Oh, my God, the girl thinks I did it!’
‘No, I don’t, I’ve got an open mind on the subject,’ said Sally bluntly. ‘If you did it, you must have had a darned good reason, and you have my vote.’
‘Have I?’ Neville said, awed. ‘And what about my second victim?’
‘As I see it,’ replied Sally, ‘the second victim – we won’t call him yours just yet – knew too much about the first murder, and had to be disposed of. Unfortunate, of course, but given the first murder, I quite see it was inevitable.’
Other books employ ingenious devices reminiscent of some of Christie’s elaborate murder methods. In No Wind of Blame (1939) it seems impossible that Wally Carter could have been shot by anyone as he was crossing a bridge in full view of several people. And when Hemingway finally fixes on a murderer, it seems impossible for him to have done it.
Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) employs an amateur sleuth, Frank Amberley, who has come from London to stay with relatives and gets embroiled in investigating a series of murders, a blackmail plot and a lost inheritance, strongly resisted by the secretive, independent and ultimately fascinating ‘Shirley Brown’.
The Unfinished Clue (1934) involves a family weekend gone wrong, where the victim has disinherited his son for becoming engaged to a Latin American cabaret dancer, shouted at his wife and refused to lend his nephew any money. Just about everyone is a suspect and all have plausible motives. An Inspector Harding features in this one-off novel, and is the focus of the love interest as well.
Death in the Stocks (1935), Behold Here’s Poison (1936), They Found Him Dead (1937), A Blunt Instrument (1938), No Wind of Blame (1939), Envious Casca (1941), Duplicate Death (1951) and Detection Unlimited (1953) are all in the Hannasyde and Hemingway series, with plots that offer blackmail, revenge, lost or hoped-for inheritances and business rivalry among the motives and long-lost heirs, disgruntled family members, blackmailees and the whole cast of previously mentioned character types as possible perpetrators. They are all excellent examples of the genre and Hemingway, particularly, is a most likeable policeman, usually forming friendships and alliances with his more personable, if wayward, suspects.
Penhallow (1942), perhaps Heyer’s most interesting crime novel, is a one-off about a severely dysfunctional family and the murder, by poisoning, of the patriarch on the eve of his birthday. It’s said that she wrote it as a contract-breaker for her then publisher, and it is generally the least liked of the 12, but it has a brooding aura of suspense and ill-will that reminds me of Daphne du Maurier. Its pace is slower and its characters are darker than in her other books, and it is more of a ‘whydunnit’ than ‘whodunnit’ as we see the murder committed and know who the killer is. In Penhallow, although the familiar stock characters appear, they are mostly not painted in their usual kindly light and their usually inoffensive sarcasm is here transformed into malevolence and cruelty.
Most of the novels take place in villages or isolated country houses, although London features in some of them (Death in the Stocks, 1935, takes place largely in London but the initial crime occurs in a village). Often the protagonists live in London but are down for the weekend or staying with family, usually local gentry or upper-middle-class professionals. Heyer’s milieu is that of the upper classes and the working class remain minor characters, as they do in other Golden Age novels – servants, stupid or risible village policemen, labourers and comically grotesque ‘oldest inhabitants’, patronisingly rendered through colloquial speech and stereotypical description. ‘Foreigners’ get short shrift, as do genuine bohemians, although the protagonists in Death in the Stocks practise a sort of genteel unconventionality, living in relative poverty in a ‘small’ flat, albeit with a live-in housekeeper/maid.
Like the other writers of the Golden Age, Heyer does not dwell on the physical details or forensic horrors of her often horrible and always plural murders. Autopsies take place offstage, corpses are not described in gruesome detail, the analysis of medical evidence is not dwelt on and the effect of murder on others is given little space, indeed little sympathy. The crimes exist to disrupt the harmony of the fictional world in order to set up the process leading to its restoration – the clues, the red herrings, the suspects and the motives are the important elements and the outcome is dependent on the solving of the puzzle. These books are intended as entertainments, meant to amuse and intrigue, rather than to reflect a frightening real world (Penhallow is perhaps the exception to this).
The other important element to Heyer’s crime novels is romance. They all contain a love story and the paths that true love takes are reminiscent of her historical novels. Will the pretty ninny fall for the fop or the sensible chap? Who will notice the rather quiet but very intelligent niece of the household? Will the devoted, disregarded friend suddenly be revealed as the love of one’s life? Will the apparently dangerous stranger turn out to be worthy of true love? Has the cynical, saturnine man of affairs really got a heart of gold? Love conquers all in these stories, as it must in romance, and evil is punished and harmony restored, as is necessary in crime fiction of this sort. In this respect Heyer is again reminiscent of Christie, who often incorporated concurrent romance subplots in her stories. What lifts them both above other romance writers is the sense of irony and humour that attaches to the characters and their interactions. We know the outcome is inevitable, but the process is entertaining and endearing, superficially rendered as the characters may be. The love stories also remain subservient to the crime plots – they arise out of the characters’ personalities and behaviours but they occur consequent to the crime story, not vice versa. The solving of the crime/s remains paramount although the romance element provides essential texture to the décor:
‘Mr Amberley, how much do you know already?’ Shirley asked abruptly.
She knew that he was smiling. ‘Something for nothing, Miss Brown?’
‘If I only knew – had some idea – I don’t know what to do. Why should I trust you?’
‘Feminine instinct,’ said Mr Amberley.
‘If you’d only tell me –’
‘I shan’t tell you anything. You shall come all the way. Didn’t I say so?’
‘You’re quite unreasonable,’ she said crossly, and got into the car. (Why Shoot a Butler?)
Like her idol, Jane Austen, and like the other Golden Age mystery writers, Heyer succeeded in creating for present-day readers a believable, if fictional, ‘historical’ period out of her own time and in writing engaging, witty and entertaining clue-puzzles. If her limited output doesn’t entitle her to be one of the queens of the Golden Age, she must be at least considered its crown princess.
*All 12 titles were republished in a new format by Arrow Books in 2006 and 2007, and have continued to be published in America by Source Books since then (Footsteps in the Dark, 1932, Why Shoot a Butler? 1933, The Unfinished Clue, 1934, Death in the Stocks, 1935, Behold, Here’s Poison, 1936, They Found Him Dead, 1937, A Blunt Instrument, 1938, No Wind of Blame, 1939, Envious Casca, 1941, Penhallow, 1942, Duplicate Death 1951, Detection Unlimited, 1953).
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