Grand Dames of Crime: Georgette Heyer

English novelist Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was best known for her Regency romances but she also wrote crime novels. Heyer was not as prolific in the crime genre as her better knows grand dames of crime contemporaries like Dorothy Sayers, Ggnaio Marsh and Agatha Christie, but twelve of the fifty-seven books she wrote over more than fifty years were country house mysteries produced between 1932 and 1953.

“I can’t imagine what possessed you to propose to me.”
“Well, that will give you something to puzzle over any time you can’t sleep.”

Behold, Here’s Poison

Heyer’s country house mysteries contained women who drank (cocktails), smoked, swore, wore makeup and drove fast cars. They also included characters more in keeping with her Regency romances who were droll and witty: The withdrawn, solitary, Aspergerish man; the heroine governess; the alpha male; the gold digger and so on. She liked to play up the haughty, self-entitled scoundrels of the upper class and her exceptional awereness of human nature meant her mysteries were brimming with complex characters and elaborate family dynamics.

If you set aside the racism, sexism and class consciousness of the era, most of Heyer’s novels have clever plots, good pace, and settings akin to books written by Dorothy Sayers. Heyer employed both amateur incidental detectives and eccentric professional policemen to solve her crimes novels which are excellent for an indulgent and frivolous afternoon read with tea and biscuits.

Two of her best mystery novels (many of which are still available) are Death in the Stocks (1935) and Envious Casca (1941).

Death in the Stocks (1935) is an English manor mystery and black comedy in which a gentleman in evening dress is discovered slumped dead in the stocks on the village green beneath a sinister moon hanging in a sky the colour of sapphires. The book is brimming with superb and complex dialogue and eccentric murder suspects in the self absorbed Vereker family.

People who start a sentence with personally (and they’re always women) ought to be thrown to the lions. It’s a repulsive habit.

Death in the Stocks

In Envious Casca, there are three Herriard brothers. Nathaniel spends his time accumulating money and self-riteous indignation . William got married, had two children then died, and Joseph ran away from his legal career to join the theatre and marry Maud from the chorus. The couple eventually return from overseas to sponge off Nathaniel. The family all come together in the family manor for christmas, which is where the story begins, and Nathaniel is found dead in his locked study.

It was Joseph who had been inspired to organize the house-party that was looming over Nathaniel’s unwilling head this chill December. Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical person bound to on another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.

Envious Casca

Heyer was intensely private. She did not give interviews or make appearances and even shunned fans. When asked about her private life her pat response was ‘You will find me in my work.’ That being said, she was also understood (according to two biographies written about her) to be a formidable character with strong views that she was less shy about expressing in correspondence.

Georgette Heyer Mysteries:

Footsteps in the Dark, 1932
Why Shoot a Butler?, 1933
The Unfinished Clue, 1934
Death in the Stocks (Merely Murder), 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
Detective Unlimited, 1953

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