I believe this is my first Heyer review on the blog. I read all of her mystery/thriller novels a few years ago, so this is a re-read for me. I was particularly interested in giving Heyer a re-read in light of the quite diverse views on her work that I have come across since starting my blog; online and at the Bodies from the Library conference.
Unlike with many of Heyer’s other mystery novels, which have a long run up to the actual murder, the dead body in this story appears on page one, which is found by a policeman walking his usual beat. The victim is Ernest Fletcher and he has been murdered in his study with a blunt instrument. How Cluedo-like can you get? The setup for this novel certainly corresponds with stereotypical ideas about what golden age detective fiction constitutes. With a garden entrance to the study, the list of suspects for the police is lengthy, as within the 30 minute window, the murder could have taken place in, quite a number of people decided to visit Ernest. We have the estranged married couple, who seem to both being hiding secrets from each other. Equally in the frame is Ernest’s nephew who is also his heir. There is even a revenge motive, tying into one of Ernest’s numerous dalliances. It is left to Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway to solve the case, aided by the irksome PC Glass, who has an almost compulsive need to converse in quotes from the Bible. As well as watching their investigation, the reader is also shown behind the scenes with the suspects, as they try, (abysmally), to hide the incriminating circumstances against themselves.
This story is decidedly in the Patricia Wentworth camp of crime fiction, with romance being a considerable theme in the story. Though in fairness to Wentworth, I think she was a more skilful and creative writer than Heyer. For instance there is a vague thread of amateur detection in this novel between two of the suspects, one of whom is also a crime fiction writer. Yet this thread is not really established, nor is it used as a basis for any metafictional comment or extensive comic effect and I think in the hands of another writer, such as Wentworth, Christie or Sayers for example, more would have been made of this narrative device. There is invariably not another level to Heyer’s writing, nor a deeper meaning to be uncovered, though to an extent she reveals something of contemporary society, such as with the sexual double standard which pervades this story.
Whilst this last paragraph is critical to the least, coming at from it a more positive angle, I would say it is also about what to expect from a Heyer novel and that in my opinion, is an easy and gently entertaining feel good read. The pacing in this book is much better than some of her other novels where there is a long lead up to the murder and I would say she also avoids repeating information too much. The characters are types, but the ones you spend a lot of time, such as Ernest’s nephew, Helen North and her crime writing sister, are engaging and likeable. Furthermore, in Heyer’s defence I would say this is one of her more clever and therefore more memorable solutions; though I am not sure how complex or difficult it is solve, as it’s the sort of solution which can spring upon you in a lightning flash or elude you entirely. But this being a re-read what I found particularly interesting was how well clued the mystery was.
Heyer will never be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of her works are pretty average, though unlike Ngaio Marsh, she does write a more interesting police investigation. Her settings also can be very similar. Yet I don’t think she is a writer to totally dismiss, as from time to time she definitely foxes you. Penhallow (1942) is one of those times for certain and I would also say my favourite is The Unfinished Clue (1934).
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Suit of Armour